My first experience composting was when I dug a hole in the ground and filled it with food scraps, garden waste, pig manure, and peach tree trimmings. Each night when I went outside to relieve myself before going to bed, I found a wild dog harvesting from the compost pit. I lived in Africa at the time.
Composting was simple then. Composting was simple there.
I’ve since worked my way through many more complicated methods and styles, only to return to simple composting. I suspect that you might like to compost in a simple way too. Who has the time or energy to make anything more complicated than it needs to be?
What is composting?
Composting at its core is just letting little animals break down organic material — organic material being pieces of plants and animals. In addition to the microscopic creatures like bacteria and fungi, little animals that are still big enough to be seen, like pill bugs and earthworms, feed on organic material in a slow and simple compost pile. If given enough time, all of the little animals break materials down so much that it looks like dark brown forest soil: compost. (In the photo at the top, the blue bucket goes in, the black bucket comes out.)
But notice who is doing the work. Who makes compost? You don’t. Little animals do. Even in the fastest, most sophisticated and supervised composting process, it’s the little animals that do the real work. They do their work faster if we get very involved in creating optimum conditions for them, true. I’m talking moisture, temperature, size of materials, type of materials. That’s fun to do, in a high school science experiment kind of way, but that’s not the only way, and it’s certainly not the “right” way. And in the suburban backyards where most of us do our gardening and composting, “rapid” composting methods are not often practiced because they’re difficult to pull off in such a setting.
Simple ways to compost
There are lots of other simpler, slower ways to compost. They all entail far less effort and understanding of the biology involved. I’ll describe a handful of them, each of which I’ve done myself, and note the advantages and disadvantages. Surely, one can be adapted to your household and garden situation.
Pile in bin: Available for purchase are containers built for composting, like this black plastic bin.
What I like about composting in this is that all of the materials are hidden, and because it’s totally enclosed it retains moisture well, which is helpful in our dry Southern California climate. Moist compost breaks down more quickly.
At the same time, I’ve found that the materials in the middle of this bin can stay too wet. If composting materials are too wet, they start to stink and they don’t decompose quickly. To counteract this, when using a bin like this one, I put wet materials mostly on the outside and dry materials mostly in the center.
This bin has a door at the bottom. Materials at the bottom of a compost pile break down most quickly, so you can slide open the door and pull some compost out to use in your garden at any time without disrupting the rest of the pile inside. That’s convenient.
Pile in wire cage: A cheaper, do-it-yourself option is to contain your pile in something like this wire cage, which I built by fastening together two of my tomato cages. (My post, “The best way to support tomato plants”.)
Similarly, I’ve seen people use wood pallets to contain compost piles.
The downsides are that they don’t look as pretty and they dry out faster compared to a pile in an enclosed bin. Since we don’t get much rain in Southern California, it’s not helpful if your compost pile is so exposed to airflow and sunshine.
Just a pile: The cheapest method, though, is just a pile with no containment. My mom does this. It’s unsightly to some people. The pile also settles into a wide pyramid since there are no walls to keep it upright. The wider and flatter the shape, the less heat will be retained, which will slow the composting process.
The upside of a simple pile is that, besides being absolutely free, it is easy to access. You can dig into the middle at any moment to grab some of the good, decomposed stuff inside.
Just a pile, in a hole: Putting your pile into a hole, as I did with my first composting attempt in Africa, rectifies the problem of the pile spreading laterally even though it makes accessing the decomposed stuff in the middle more difficult. So that’s the tradeoff. I have skirted this tradeoff by building compost piles in holes besides fruit trees, where I never intend to access the compost; rather, I cover the pile with wood chips once it has filled the hole and then let it rot in place forever.
Back in 2013, for example, I filled a hole between these two avocado trees with compostable materials. The trees have grown up and rooted into the rich, black nutrients that remain.
Spread under trees: Can it get even simpler, easier? Why yes it can — if you neither dig a hole nor form a pile, but simply sprinkle organic material on the ground. In our yard, we have a Valencia orange tree that is 25 feet tall and pruned up into the shape of a giant umbrella. It functions as our outdoor living room. So, when we’re sitting under it and snacking we simply drop the mango seeds, pomegranate peels, and apricot pits right at our feet. I occasionally add wood chips to the ground too. It looks messy, I’ll admit, but what could be easier? And I’ve never fertilized the tree in any other way, while it produces oodles of juicy oranges every summer.
Chickens: In none of these simple composting methods does one have to wield a shovel or fork and turn the pile. Turning the pile makes compost faster. But chickens can be employed to do this work for free. This is actually how I do almost all of my composting these days. (My post, “Chickens: my garden’s little helpers”.)
I know chickens aren’t for everyone, but if you think that you don’t have enough space or don’t want a stinky coop in your yard, then you might like composting through laying hens as we do: Our pen is four feet wide, eight feet long, and two feet tall; and it is the only home our little flock of four hens has. They eat our table scraps and garden waste and whip it into the best compost I’ve ever seen. And there’s never any odor as long as you add enough plant material to offset their poop production.
Principles of composting
I can think of three things that even a simple composter like me needs to keep in mind. They can be written on a napkin:
A little elaboration:
1. Clip or mow some things before adding, if it’s not too much work. I often do this with cornstalks and old tomato vines.
2. Just add dry stuff like dead leaves or twigs, or open the bin to the air and sun.
3. I add a lot of things that many people say not to add, and I’ve never encountered any problems: meat, bones, oils, fats, eucalyptus, wood ash, plants that have bugs on them, plants that have diseases. I understand if that makes you nervous, but you might try it and see what happens. On the other hand, I don’t add some things: weeds that have seeds, and materials that are thorny. Weed seeds will not be killed in a simple, slow compost pile. Materials like raspberry canes and bougainvillea or rose prunings will still be there to bite you unless you leave the compost pile for a decade.
When is compost finished?
Organic materials will never stop breaking down and being eaten by the microbes, so in that sense the composting process is never finished. Use compost whenever it looks the way you want it to look. I use compost that is still chunky to spread as mulch under fruit trees, but I wait longer and also screen out big bits if I want to use the compost in containers for starting vegetable seeds.
While I don’t know of an excellent video about simple composting — maybe because it would be too short to be worthwhile — I can heartily recommend watching this video showing Charles Dowding’s slightly complex composting method. He shows his piles in different stages, what he adds to them, and why they transform as they do. Charles Dowding is always worth listening to.
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