Compost – An Absolute Essential

As I started this very first post I thought it’d be good to talk about something foundational; and you just can’t get any more foundational than soil, right?  What’s more, you can’t get any more foundational than a discussion about what makes for good soil – and that’s compost.  Maybe some of you have heard the term but you don’t really even know what compost is.  That’s okay.  Compost is really just natural fertilizer.  It’s the soil that develops naturally, for instance, on the forest floor.  It’s created by the decomposition of vegetation.  Most people in gardening and homesteading circles refer to compost as “black gold” because it’s so good and nutritious for your plants.

In many places the soil is too far gone to be amended (made better).  Well, let’s just say, it’s too far gone if you want to grow food any time soon.  The only way to get to the business of producing food in a timely manner is to create your own soil – perfect from the start.  Not everybody lives in the same context.  In many locations around the world the ground is toxic (not an overstatement) and it would be hazardous to grow anything in it.  I’m thinking of the people I met who lived around the city dump in Guatemala City.  In those cases, it’s absolutely critical to create new soil.  Still others, like urban dwellers, they may not even have access to the ground.  So that leads us back to compost.  Here in the good ol’ US of A I use Mel Bartholomew’s formula (Mel is the founder of Square Foot Gardening method) which consists of three equal parts: compost, vermiculite, and peat moss.  But this can get expensive.  For example, it took three bags of vermiculite (at about $15 per bag), one big bail of peat moss (about $10), and about six smaller bags of various compost (each about $4) to fill one of my 4 x 4 beds.  When you do five beds or more, that’s a lot of money!  Interestingly, Mel says that in a developing country you may have no choice but to just use compost.  Which just confirms my thinking that besides sun, water, and seed, compost is the most essential building block to food production.

3-bin composting operation made from discarded shipping pallets.
3-bin composting operation made from discarded shipping pallets.

The problem is that many people that I know pursue compost almost as an afterthought.  It’s treated as that smelly, ugly pile in the corner of the backyard that gets very little attention, is often overrun with weeds, and is a great hangout for snakes.  If you’re starting a good-sized raised bed garden then you’re going to need to have good compost at your disposal quickly, and that means you need to get serious about making it – lots of it.  Now, there a lot of opinions floating around out there about the best way to make compost.  In my opinion, many methods are just too small and too slow.  I’m just going to tell you about the method that worked well for me.  It’s the method that Foundations for Farming in Harare, Zimbabwe teaches their farmers.  According to their teachers, you should build a compost pile no smaller than 2 meters cubed, or 6.5 feet cubed.  That’s a lot of compost!  The reason they say to build a pile that big is so that it generates the level of heat inside necessary to break down the material quickly.  The fancy word for this is aerobic decomposition.  To build this serious pile you’ll need lots of water, lots of mass, lots of air, and lots of heat.  Take a look at some of these photos of when I worked with a group of Lozi farmers in Zambia to build a 6.5-foot cubed compost pile.

Working with Lozi farmers to make a compost pile
Working with Lozi farmers to make a compost pile
Plunging every handful in water.
Plunging every handful in water.
Pile about 50 cm high.
Pile about 50 cm high.

 

Foundations for Farming says that you can have finished compost in 7-8 weeks.  Follow these fairly easy steps:

Step 1 – Gather material.  Your compost pile should be made up of three kinds of materials: 40% green material (green when it’s cut), 40% woody or dry material, and 20% high nitrogen manure and legumes (like beans, peas, or clover).

Step 2 – Lay the material down in layers, like the seven-layer salad your auntie makes.  And the material needs to be wet the first time you build the pile.  Do the squeeze test.  Take a handful of wet compost and squeeze it.  No water should drip out but it should also hold its shape when you open your hand.

Note: Your pile shouldn’t look unsightly.  If done correctly, it will look orderly.  But if aesthetics is a particular concern, I recommend that you wrap around the four posts of your pile with a lightweight bamboo or reed fence which can be removed and put back into place easily.

Available from http://www.mastergardenproducts.com
Available from http://www.mastergardenproducts.com

Step 3 – Take a long piece of steel re-bar (about 4 feet will do) and insert it into the very center of the pile.  It acts as a probe.  After 1-2 days feel the probe.  If it’s too hot to hold onto then it’s time to turn the pile.  Turning the pile is the only way to cool it down.

Step 4 – You must consciously build the pile inside out and upside down (the inside moves to the outside and the bottom moves to the top).  This will ensure that the whole pile is being exposed to the proper amount of heat.  Turning also supplies oxygen to the pile which is a necessary part of the decomposition process.  And any moisture that’s been lost due to steam or evaporation can be replaced.  Do the squeeze test again to see what’s necessary.

Step 5 – Keep turning the pile every few days (it may be once each week) and you will have a very large mound of useful compost in about two months time.

One final thought… obviously you need some yard space to make a 6.5 ft. cubed compost pile.  If you don’t have yard space, don’t worry, there’s another way to create great compost on the smallest scale.  It’s called vermicomposting, or composting with worms.  But that’s a topic for another post!

#mudhutlabbeginnings, #compost, #homestead