By Kevin Feintstein
The short answer is yes! The longer answer, as with all things growing related, is “it depends.”
It depends on your situation as to what style of compost pile you should have.
What is compost?
Here are some common meanings of compost that are in wide use:
“Food scraps” or “kitchen” waste. Although we might refer to these as “compost,” they are only a potential ingredient in compost making. We often say, I need to “take out the compost” but really we mean “take out the food scraps.”
Compost as in a compost pile: We might say, “I’m going to turn the compost” — meaning, to turn the compost pile. This is a lot closer to what compost is.
Compost as an additive to your garden. It’s a common practice to add “compost” to your garden. This is finished compost. It’s what your harvest from your compost pile when it’s “done.”
Ultimately, compost is the breaking down of organic materials.
Do you need to compost? Again, the short answer is “yes.” But there are some things that you should understand first.
1. Compost happens. Piling up organic matter is all it really takes, nature does the rest. You can make compost making a laboratory science or an art, but it doesn’t have to be that complex.
2. You are very unlikely to generate enough compost in most normal home situations to cover your garden each year. In the average household, if you were to get a wheelbarrow full a year that would be a major success! So when we are looking to put in food forests or gardens, we often need to import several cubic yards of finished compost — that is a dump truck’s worth!
3. Using food scraps to make your compost. Most households don’t generate enough food scraps to make much of a compost pile, and the food scraps might attract pests and rodents. There are rodent-proof bins that you make or purchase that might be an option. In most cases, adding your food scraps to your compost pile is a practice that saves them from the landfill — good for the Earth but not necessarily any major use in even a medium size garden. Using your food scraps to feed a red worm bin (vermiculture) or a black soldier fly larvae bin are more efficient uses for your kitchen scraps — as is feeding them to chickens or pigs.
4. The main reason gardeners need a compost pile in most cases is to simply compost garden materials. This is old corn stalks, tomato plants when they are finished for the season, etc. Otherwise, you are having these materials hauled off to some other place — not recommended. You want to keep that organic matter on site.
5. Composting with animal manure. If you have chickens, for instance, adding chicken manure to your pile will greatly increase the amount of compost you can make at home and supercharge it as well!
Managing your compost pile
Browns and Greens
A healthy compost pile needs a good combination of those two. “Browns” typically refers to high-carbon materials like corn stalks, wood chips, etc. Sawdust would be on the extreme end of “brown” for instance. A corn stalk that is still partially green would be on the “green” side of the “brown” spectrum.
“Greens” refers to materials high in nitrogen. Chicken manure or urine would be on the extreme “green” end of the spectrum. But anything like kitchen scraps, fresh leaves, etc are considered “green.” You need a balance of these so that the pile doesn’t get too “green’ where it will get slimy and stinky. If it’s too “brown” it will dry out and not much activity will happen in the compost. The most simple way to do this is have a pile of ‘brown” materials nearby such as wood chips, wood pellets, sawdust, dried fall leaves, etc. And every time you add some “green” material to the pile such as food scraps, manure, or fresh green leaves, cover them with some of the “brown” material.
Do I need to turn my compost pile?
Turning the compost pile allows air to enter, which accelerates the composting process and encourages beneficial aerobic microbes. It is recommended yes, but do you have to do it? No, compost happens.
There are two kinds of compost tea (and no you don’t drink it!). The first one, the “old school” compost tea is anaerobic — without oxygen. You put compost, manure, lots of comfrey leaves, etc, in a bucket of water, cover, and let it decompose/ferment for several days to a few weeks. It becomes super stinky but the liquid is very rich in nutrients for plants. The other type is aerobic or aerated compost tea. This is when you brew all the beneficial microbes that are found in compost and multiply them. This then is sprayed onto the plants and/or soil to add microbes and life to the soil. This has amazing benefits in many situations but requires a bit of knowledge and some basic equipment. It also requires high-quality finished compost — such that most average homeowners are unlikely to make. But the good news is, it doesn’t take very much to brew a lot of compost tea, so it’s often worth it to purchase a small bag of professional compost for this purpose.
Do I need my compost pile to get hot?
The answer is that “it depends.” If you want to kill weed seeds or plant diseases, then yes, you want it to get hot so you can “cook” those things out. However, your microbes will be less diverse and it is pretty difficult to get everything right in your pile to get it that temperature — especially for the average household. It is better in these cases to not put weeds with seeds or diseased plant material into your pile in the first place.
Compost can be easy and fun — and as simple as just finding a place to pile up organic matter. We offer consultation services to help guide you in selecting the best spot, which system is best for you, how to best use your chicken manure, managing a worm or larvae bin, and more. But ultimately it is nature that does the work!