On Compost and Composting

It’s a funny old place the internet, full of information about absolutely everything and providing an equal opportunity for complete idiots and world experts to put forward their views as if they were of similar value. The distinction between fact and fiction has never been fuzzier. On almost every topic under the sun you will find trenchant views for and against and even sometimes balanced in the middle.

It is rare indeed to find a subject on which there is a broad consensus with scarcely a dissenting voice to be heard. Composting may well be as close as you’ll get to such a subject. By no stretch of the imagination does everybody do it, and among those who do there is a lively debate about methods, but you would have to look very hard to find someone saying it’s not something you should do. Indeed, the prevailing tone in many online articles is that there are no reasons for not composting, only excuses.

This year, in a spirit of enquiry, I’m going to swim against the tide and not have a compost heap. Let me explain my thinking.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday up at my allotment digging out my compost heap and barrowing it onto my plot. It warmed me up if nothing else. Lovely stuff it was, brown and crumbly and pretty much fully broken down. I shifted about half of it and will try to get the rest done by the end of the week when it’s due to get warmer but wetter again. I am a no-digger, so usually I would aim to get a good layer of compost spread over all my bare ground in autumn but this winter has been so wet and I’ve had other excuses, so it didn’t happen. I would do it in expectation of a number of benefits, by far the greatest of which is to protect the soil from the sort of relentless rain we’ve been getting for the last several weeks. It will also provide some nutrients and encourage the soil fauna to get to work dragging it down into the lower levels where it will improve water retention, drainage, cation exchange capacity and so on. The soil surface hasn’t been completely without protection, I have a pretty good crop of weeds in addition to the crops that are still in the ground.

The weeds are providing some soil protection, as well as more woody material from previous years. There are still parsnips in the ground but most of this ground is empty and will get covered with compost.

Digging out the heap has been made more difficult by the fact that nettles have become well established around three sides of the heap, left there by me because they were covered in the caterpillars of peacock butterflies. Unfortunately the tough yellow roots and white rhizomes have gone deep into the compost heap and I have had to pick them out as I’ve been going along. Getting rid of them would be something of a challenge though I can keep them down with my strimmer.

The compost heap broadly has three bays. The oldest stuff was in the middle where the barrow is. Usually I turn each outer bay into the middle and leave it for a bit before using it. This year it’s all going. There are nettles growing through the pallets at the left and right, as well as all along the back.

What has also helped protect the soil is material that I have collected in the autumn, shredded and put straight back onto the ground. Peas and beans produce quite a lot of greenery and I simply bagged it up, took it home, shredded it and took it back up the plot to spread back on the area it had just vacated. While I was at it, I would have shredded and mixed with it any kitchen waste and garden tidyings that were around at the time.

I have a shredder because the garden generates woody prunings that would take a very long time to breakdown without being chopped up. I want to keep them rather have the council recycle them because for no dig you need all the material you can get your hands on. Woody material is good because it breaks down very slowly and the top layer of my allotment soil has several years worth in it, making it quite resilient under winter’s wet cosh. The shredder is electric, so powered during the day with surplus electricity from our solar panels. It’s not a wholly green method but it could be worse. Since I have it I use it for just about everything that I want to compost; it speeds the breakdown process dramatically and means that even if stuff isn’t fully composted it is nevertheless quite fine and spreadable.

I replaced my second Bosch shredder with a Stihl machine as I thought I would use it enough to justify the considerable expense. It’s quite a big brute and like the Bosch, its blades are vulnerable to stones in the material being shredded. I have to sharpen the blades quite regularly as a result. I keep it outside, but covered, so I don’t have to move it far. Feeding material into it is simple enough although it gets clogged up rather a lot.

The shredder chops stuff up so effectively that if I have bare ground on the plot, I will often simply spread it on the ground rather than putting it on the heap. I’m thinking that by so doing, all the nutrients go back into the ground rather than getting washed out of the heap and all the benefits of busy worm activity that characterise the early stages of composting take place in the soil of my plot rather than on the compost heap. The fact is that the stuff I was digging out yesterday had very few worms in it, they’d done their work and moved on. I’m not convinced that they are going to reappear just because I’ve now spread the compost onto the soil. OK, it’s a different set of worms and the soil living species will go to work on the spread compost, but I suspect that it’s the difference between silage and growing grass for them, they’ll eat it because there’s nothing fresher.

I’ve piled compost onto the bare ground here, now I need to work some around the kale and sprouts that are still here. I’ll just spread it over the top of the weeds and deal with the survivors later.

All that I’m planning to do then is to shift the balance from shredding and spreading some of my green waste to shredding and spreading all of it. It might entail putting some tough material through the shredder twice and I may leave some stuff, kitchen waste perhaps, in a bag for a week or two before spreading it, so the orange peel and banana skins go brown. There may be times when there is very little bare ground and I just make a pile somewhere temporarily. It’s hard to imagine it attracting more rodents than the plague of voles we already had last year and it will be spread too thin and break down too quickly to provide slugs with much shelter.

Picking up on a typical online list of reasons to compost, it ticks every item. In some cases it will do the job better. Here’s one such list:

1. reduces waste to landfill
2. strengthens soil and promotes healthy plant growth
3. reduces need for pesticides and fertilizer
4. recycles essential nutrients back into the soil
5. Promotes a prolific soil ecosystem
6. It’s cheap and easy

I would say that more essential nutrients will get back to the soil (3 & 4), that it would provide nutrition for a wider range of fauna and fungi as it is the whole breakdown process happening in the soil not on the heap (5), that it protects the soil better if it’s on the soil rather than on the heap (2), that it is cheaper and easier because it doesn’t need to be dug out and spread and doesn’t require compost bins or structures (6). That’s a gain on every item but the first one, which doesn’t change. I’ll take that.

Then looking at a list of excuses for not composting, I ask myself if it answers any of them or makes things worse.

  1. it’s too difficult, all this mixing of greens and browns
  2. It stinks
  3. It attracts rodents and other vermin
  4. It takes a lot of space/is ugly
  5. It takes too long to turn to compost
  6. It’s too much work

I don’t worry about what goes in it, it’s all good, if for different reasons. It stinks less because there is no anaerobic generation of aromatic breakdown products and any that do form don’t stick around. Attracting vermin is one I shall wait and see on, but I can’t see being a problem. It takes no space and goes brown in a day or two so is not unattractive, not that I care much on my allotment. There’s no turning required and it’s only handled once. OK, the shredding is a chore but for me works out at maybe a couple of hours a fortnight and is just another job in the garden and one I’d rather be doing than mowing grass. Mostly gains there too.

Do I have concerns? A few. If I have no heap to spread in autumn will there be enough residue of spread material to protect the soil surface? I think there will because it is in autumn that the greatest volume of material is being processed. Will there be bare ground to spread it on? Can I get away with spreading it around growing crops? Will it attract slugs? (or give them something to eat other than my crops). Will it get worked on and incorporated into the soil in dry spells?
That’s why I’m just going to take the plunge and do it, to get some answers. In the meantime, I’d better get those nettles under control so if I’m back to having a heap next year, at least I won’t have that problem.

16 thoughts on “On Compost and Composting

    1. Really?! People put too much effort into their compost anyway. Our compost piles are so big that they get turned by tractor, but we really put no other effort into them. I do not even monitor the temperature. Contribution from horses is a major component. I suppose that is good. It is not possible to compost all the tones of greenwaste that we generate. We actually use very little of it. Much of what gets chipped gets blasted back out into the forest.

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      1. Blasting chippings back into the forest is pretty much a planned version of what nature does, just dump it on the ground and let critters big and small and fungi and bacteria get to work. All our local councils compost on a grand scale but I’ve no idea where it all ends up. It’s sitting there for months giving off carbon dioxide and methane and doing no good.

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      2. In large municipalities, compost that is generated by the urban forest (and collected by those who maintain the parks and street trees and such) is actually sold to those who can use it. It is not the greatest, and can be risky, but is cheap, and good for applications that do not require the best quality compost.

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      3. That happens here too, if I had one, I could take a trailer and fill up with municipal compost. I’d be apprehensive about using it for food crops, there’s no telling what people chuck in their garden rubbish. It sounds like your tree waste is dealt with separately?

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      4. Yes and no. There are ‘rules’, but not many who live in big cities understand such ‘rules’. For example, we can not recycle palm, yucca, dracaena or bamboo debris. However, few here know what a yucca or dracaena is, and not many more care if they recycle palm or bamboo debris; because they know that those operating the machinery that collects it do not care about what goes into it. (When I lived in town, and took the bins to the curb, I could not get the other tenants to actually ‘sort’ their recyclables and trash. Whatever bin was closest to the gate was filled with ‘everything’.) Nonetheless, I would feel pretty safe about the recycled greenwaste, even if the yucca and dracaena (and maybe palm and bamboo) do not decompose like they should. The only reason I do not do so is that I can get all the compost I want from here. I just need to pull all the weeds that grow in it. If I wanted to, I could get chips from the trees, and eve select which shredded trees I want.

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      5. My worry would be about traces of herbicides, especially the 2,4,D tribe, which is still used on lawns. Some things like tomatoes are sensitive to it at very low levels and I don’t want to be eating it at any level, though I already will be on shop bought food.

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      6. Herbicides are rarely used anymore. Even the most inept of those who work in their gardens refrain from using herbicides. They are just SO stigmatized nowadays. The majority of greenwaste is generated by trees and large shrubbery. Weeds that are killed by herbicides mostly deteriorate in the gardens where they die, and any remaining bits are negligible.

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      7. America is such a country of contradictions, viewed from this end of the telescope. I was just reading about Mead in Nebraska, a village, plagued by a bio-ethanol plant that has been using surplus neonicotinoid treated seeds as part of what it ferments to get alcohol. Causing mayhem in all directions and not a damn thing anyone can do seemingly. The chemicals concerned are widely used in America and almost completely banned in Europe. Yet when it comes to herbicides, and no doubt the star villain will be Roundup, there’s a massive stigma against using them. I’m not saying it’s much different here, but I don’t see the same extremes.
        It’s mainly the 2,4,D type herbicides, used to kill weeds in lawns, that I’d be concerned about in compost. The stuff is still available in every garden centre so I have to assume it’s being used, and some of those grass clippings will go in the green waste bin.

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      8. Oh, the contradictions are boggling! We are in the middle of most of the idiocy in California. (Even though President Trump did not get his facts correct, he was correct when he said that inadequate forest management is part of why forest fires are so devastating here now.)
        Weirdly though, herbicides are very unpopular here all the way around. We do not use them at work. (We are unable to use them in some of the situations where we would otherwise use them.) When I worked for various landscape companies, they really did not maintain lawns like they are maintained in other regions. Lawns just are not such a priority here. They get mown and irrigated, and that is about it. Only golf courses and such get herbicide. I really do not mind, because other pesticides were such a problem for just about every landscape company. I mean, if they misuse fertilizers and insecticides, they would just as easily misuse herbicides. It is part of why I can not do that sort of work anymore. (Most of those on the crews at my former job, which did not last long, could neither read nor write, so could neither follow printed instructions, nor document use! No one had a problem with that!)

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    1. I did away with compost heaps in the garden about four years ago, it’s all gone to the allotment or been spread direct. Now they’re gone from there too, all emptied out and spread today.

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  1. A bit like listening to a good debate there, Jim. I am always amazed just how quickly debris is assimilated. I have allotment envy, but as soon as I remember all the work, I just think, yes I’ve been there, and got the teashirt. However we are very lucky here to have top quality locally produced fruit and veg.

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    1. I’m always looking for ways to reduce the amount of work involved with the allotment. I like veg growing because it’s a very different discipline from ornamental gardening, more difficult in many ways, and it’s very satisfying to eat something you grew yourself.

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  2. Interesting, Jim. I feel that so much material comes from the garden that I need to do something with it – is simply has to be dealt with. Composting, shredding and compost heaps is what works for me. I cannot imagine spreading the amount of material back on to the garden while it is still green – the sheer volume would defeat me. A session of grass cutting brings two to three fills of the collection box of a ride-on mower and having to distribute that even would be a challenge. Composting, if nothing else, reduces volume and has the benefit, as we have found this year, of being suitable for use in pots and containers as well as the usual use as a mulch/soil enhancer. I echo your experience of using the shredder – also a big Stihl – which reduces volume, generates heat in the heap leading to speedier decomposition.

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    1. I don’t get so much material from the garden that it’s going to overwhelm me, though in summer with most of the allotment ground occupied I might get problems. I struggle to get enough material to sustain my no dig regime so the extra volume of uncomposted material is in my favour.

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