[This is an article I wrote for the September 2014 Fall Gardening Special of local newspaper The Danville Register & Bee. It was written as a Master Gardener Volunteer with Virginia Cooperative Agriculture Extension. My natural writing voice has more personality, but my enthusiasm for composting and bias towards permaculture practice still comes through!]

Fall is For Composting

I’m excited! Fall is upon us! As the weather changes and things get a little more damp and a little less lush, I’m most excited about all the extra yard waste that’s about to come into circulation. If you garden, you should be excited too because a tremendous amount of organic matter is close at hand and you can take advantage of that wonderful soil-amending, biology-boosting, and disease-reducing stuff by making your own compost!


When I ask people why they don’t compost, the first or second reason is almost always “because it smells!” (The other reason given is usually something about limited space, especially for urban dwellers.) But smelly compost is an indicator of poor technique—well-made compost is either neutral smelling, or pleasantly earthy—and we can fix that with knowledge and training.


Why Compost

Soil without biology is just dirt—inert minerals and elements. You need biology in the soil to help plants make use of those inert minerals and nutrients. Good compost stimulates the growth of good bacteria and fungi, soil-busting, pathogen destroying worms, predatory nematodes (yes, there are good guy nematodes!) and returns organic matter to the soil that is ready to be put to immediate use by organisms that work in harmony with the roots of your plants exchanging nitrogen, water, and other nutrients for delicious, tasty starches.


Beyond the domain of our own yard and garden plants, composting is beneficial to the environment by keeping yard waste out of landfills where it’s essentially entombed in the earth in plastic, going anaerobic, taking up space, and benefiting no one. Keeping yard waste out of our landfills is also beneficial to our pocketbooks—compost savvy Hanover County, VA dramatically extended the life and utility of their landfill by taking on community composting. As more localities reject yard waste for landfills, there are more reasons for you to keep it on your property. As long as it’s there, why not make good use of it?


Composting Basics

Composting is not complex. Retired Louisiana Master Gardener Felder Rushing sums it up nicely when he says, “There’s only two things you gotta’ know about composting: 1) stop throwing that stuff away, and 2) pile it up here.”


What can you compost? Technically, almost anything. If it’s made from carbon and nitrogen, you’re in business. But practically at home, we stick to leaves, branches and bark, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps (greens, coffee grounds, fruit pits and cores) commonly. Some manure is an excellent starter for your compost, though NOT pet waste (dog or cat) as they can carry pathogens. Other typical “no-nos” include table scrap meats and oils–they increase the likelihood of attracting scavenging pests like skunks, raccoons, and rats–and any grass clippings should come from untreated yards—you don’t want pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides in your compost.


Basic and Advanced Techniques

There are really only a handful of techniques: static compost, vermicompost, and thermal compost.


Easiest of all is the static (or nearly-static pile; you’ll have to turn it a few times). In this technique, you pile your compost in layers with the coarsest material on the bottom (think twigs or bark), add 4”-6” of leaves, a high nitrogen source (manure, spring grass clippings), and then keep adding a layer of greens and a layer of browns, watering between each layer, until you’re out of material. Don’t hold out for exotic materials you read or hear about like cocoa hulls; just work with what you’ve got. Sawdust, corn husks, and chicken manure are all AOK. Turn the pile with a pitchfork (how often do you get to use a pitchfork in town?!) at least once a week to speed up the process. When is it compost? “When it stops looking like the stuff you put in the pile and instead looks like crumbly soil,” as Cooperative Extension’s Frank Reilly says. This could take a few months, but if you start in the fall, overwintering will help make it awesome just in time for spring!


Vermicomposting puts worms to work for you. Essentially, you put them in a large container with plenty of air, not too much light, and layer kitchen scraps (this time keeping out citrus, too) with paper and cardboard and the rift amount of moisture. It’ll take as little as 90 days for the worms to go their thing. You’ll get a smaller amount of compost but worm castings are high quality compost for sure, and are an excellent ingredient in compost tea. If you really like the idea of working with worms but not keeping them in a box in the house, porch, or garage, Google “worm towers” for your garden beds; this is what we’re trying on our property this fall.


The final technique, thermal composting, is a bit more complex, requiring that you have at least a cubic meter of material in the right ratios to work with. It also benefits from a composting thermometer as it requires you to build the heat of your pile up around 150º for 3-5 days, turning and watering frequently. This is difficult for most folks composting at home, but it can give you compost in as little as 18 days using the Berkley method!


There are many, many recipes for composting—are you making a fungal-dominated compost for perennials or a bacterial-dominated compost for annuals? a more acidic compost (blueberries, oaks, and evergreens) or a more alkali one (hellebores and boxwoods). Not knowing these recipes won’t hurt your composting efforts—it’ll only slow them down. Organic materials want to break down; its’ the natural order of things and you’re just helping things along.


Relax and get More Info

When considering compost materials, Permaculturist and Compost “Master Chef” Geoff Lawton advises, “If it has lived, it can live again.” That’s really what you’re doing with composting; you're helping return living matter back to other living matter to support yet more living matter. It’s good work. It’s a natural process. And it’s really easy to do.


So don’t be intimidated. Remember, “compost happens!”


If you would like more information about composting and the opportunity to get up front and personal with it, you are invited to my composting presentation at the South Boston - Halifax County Museum on Friday, November 21 at 11 a.m.  This is part of the Fall Gardening Classes presented by the Southside Master Gardener Association.  The programs are free and open to the public. For more information visit www.ssmga.org or contact the Halifax Extension Office at 434-476-2147.