I’m an extreme composter. I’ve composted in tumblers, in pallet enclosures, in the ground, in sheets, in kitchen worm bins, in the rain, on a train, with a goat on a boat, etc.
There’s a lot of “common knowledge” on composting. Some of it is really good, and some of it is just sissified repetition of info promulgated by various government agencies. I’ve read literally thousands of pages on the topic and done much more experimenting than the average gardener.
If you listen to the experts, the process sounds like a pain in the neck. No meat! No bread! No oils! No paper! Make a nice set of boxes! Put hardware cloth and motion detectors in to control rats! Get the carbon to nitrogen ratio right! Ensure a thermophilic reaction! Ask your neighbors first! Keep it moist, but not wet! Use an activator! Throw on diatomaceous earth! Add lime! Check with local authorities! Turn it monthly – weekly – daily – hourly! YIKES!
No wonder we keep throwing banana peels in the trash. It’s time to take a deep breath and re-think composting and why we do it.
The Ground Floor
At a basic level, composting is simply a process of rot you can harness to feed your plants. To get started right now, you don’t need bins or a mix of “browns and greens.” Compost is like magic – you take “waste” and make it into a resource. Every bit of organic material that passes through your household can be returned to the soil. All you need is a shovel. Got a garden bed? Dig a trench and dump in food scraps, egg shells, bones, leftovers, even junk mail (not the glossy stuff or envelopes with plastic windows, obviously) and then bury it. Congratulations – you’ve just added nutrients back to the soil and there’s no smell, no infrastructure, and little trouble. If you’ve buried it deep enough, the critters aren’t a problem – and as long as you’re not burying piles of sawdust or tons of paper, “nitrogen robbing” won’t be a big deal.
I confess: I’m neurotic about composting anything and everything… but I’m not neurotic about creating “perfect” compost. I create a few large piles a year to feed my wife’s raised beds and my collection of fruit trees. I just mix a collection of green and brown things together and let nature take its course. If you’ve got some coffee grounds (some coffee shops give them away for free!), grass clippings, garden debris, kitchen scraps and that sort of thing, mix them together in a pile and wet it as you go. It WILL rot, even if it isn’t as fast as you’d like. Turn it when you remember and it will break down faster. Get the mix of carbon and nitrogen correct and it will convert much faster – but even if you’re totally lazy, it will eventually become beautiful compost. I make piles of really rough stuff when I don’t have time for being fancy and it always breaks down.
Every time I drive through town, I see piles of palm fronds, leaves, branches, grass clippings, tree trunks, pine needles and other rich organic matter lying by the road, waiting to be picked up by waste management. People don’t realize what they’re doing! By sending all that organic material off their property – they’re exporting their soil’s fertility… only to later purchase some back in plastic bags marked with numbers like “10-10-10.”
Leaves and grass clippings can be used as mulch or put in a compost pile. Pine needles are good mulch for acid-loving plants such as roses, azaleas and blueberries. Over time, all that plant material will break down and become part of the soil again, whether or not you make a nice, neat, highly managed system.
Trees: Living Fertility Factories
Think about it: a tree pulls up nutrients from deep in the soil and uses them, along with solar energy and water, to grow. In crude terms, a tree was designed to be, in part, a massive nutrient and water pump. The roots of your garden crops have a very limited depth and spread. A tree can send roots deep into the earth and far into surrounding properties to gather nutrients. It’s particularly useful as a gatherer of nutrients that have leached into the ground below the reach of lesser plants. What it gathers is then used to build leaves, fruit, wood, etc. When leaves fall in the autumn, they’re not trash – they’re a gift from above. Don’t chuck or burn them! You’re leaving your piece of ground less fertile every time you do. You’re also keeping that tree from cycling nutrients back into the ecosystem in a sustainable way.
Think about it: how much fertilizer does grass need in order to look lush and green? Plenty. Now look at a piece of forest wilderness. That’s a self-feeding, self-sustaining system. Don’t sever the nutrient loop on your own property.
Now let’s talk about composting the scary stuff.
The reason you’re often told “NO!” on meat is because it attracts varmints when placed in bins or tumblers above ground. There’s a simple solution to this problem: bury it. Blood and bone meal are both valuable organic fertilizers. Fish emulsion is another good food for the soil. How come we buy these expensive slaughterhouse and fishing-derived amendments while chucking bones and meat into the trash?
You’ve probably heard how the Indians taught the Pilgrims to bury fish carcasses beneath corn plants. That’s composting! This may sound nutty, but I’ve followed their lead and buried organ meat, beef stew, animal carcasses and rotten leftovers in 2-3’ deep holes and then covered them with a mound of dirt. A month or two later, I planted squash and sunflower seeds on the hills. I’ll tell you what – the plants didn’t need any additional fertilizing! Plus, those areas remain fertile for years. The slow release of nutrients is just what the doctor ordered.
I’ve been told not to put these things in the compost pile. Oils gum up the decay process, bread takes a while to break down, and dairy makes things stink to high heaven. So – do we throw them away? Naw – not a chance. Instead, I feed them to my chickens, then add the chicken manure to my compost pile. Since the chickens can’t easily eat a bowl of used cooking oil, I mix it into the other scraps I’m feeding them and they’ll wolf it down along with everything else. In return, I get eggs and manure. If you don’t have chickens, I’d opt for burying these more problematic items and just trust the bacteria and fungi to do their job over time.
Composting Human “Waste”
Composting your own urine and feces is controversial. Many people view the invention of the flush toilet as a great leap forward for mankind. The idea of eating food grown with poop provokes a deep revulsion in most Westerners. However, in a survival situation – or for those who seek a closer connection to nature – it makes total sense. We use animal manures – why not human manure?
The answer that immediately springs to mind is “Disease! What about E. coli? Dysentery? Tapeworms?”
Fear not. Those things can all be destroyed through composting.
The go-to guide on the subject of humanure is Joseph Jenkins’ excellent “Humanure Handbook,” which uses a two-year hot composting system and bucket sawdust toilets to make completely safe rich compost. If someone wanted a perfect setup for an off-grid cabin, this would be it. I’ve used a modified version of this method for years and was blown away by how fast a cooking compost pile can digest what would normally be a horrifying septic mess.
Hoewever, there is an even easier way. Burying raw sewage beneath plants works wonders for growth. I remember reading of a system of mobile outhouses someone designed for use in Africa. Basically, a deep pit was dug in barren land and an outhouse was placed on top of it. After a year of use, the outhouse was moved and the top of the pit was filled with dirt. Then a tree was planted on top of it. The resulting concentrated fertility allowed the sapling to take hold even under tough conditions.
I’ve done the same with a mulberry tree to great effect.
Some folks worry that somehow the fruit of such a tree will be contaminated. A little bit of scientific inquiry rapidly dispels this notion. There’s no way for E. coli, a gut bacteria made to live inside nice warm animal and human intestines, can live and travel upwards through a plant. It just doesn’t happen. The danger, as we’ve seen in contaminated spinach recalls, is in raw waste being spattered onto produce that is then consumed. Burying makes this problem no longer a problem, provided you’re not in an area that floods. In that case, compost first. Don’t take stupid risks. But… if you’re simply returning droppings to the earth, where they belong, your trees will thank you.
Using Chickens to Create Killer Soil
Another great method, as mentioned before, is to send stuff that doesn’t compost well right into the chicken pen. Beyond the saving of manure for later use, if your chickens are in a small run, you can simply throw lots of stuff over the fence and let them compost it right on the ground. I pitch lots of seedy weeds, kitchen scraps, leftovers from church dinners and other tough-to-compost items into the same spot in my chicken yard. They eat it, turn it in, poop on it, turn it again – and leave behind some really nice dirt. You can then sift that dirt through some hardware cloth and dump it into your intensive beds or throw it around your trees. I rarely have weed seeds popping up after the chickens are done – and my crops grow really nicely in beds topped off with microbe and nutrient-rich dirt from the chicken run. Other people build closed in bins that chickens can access from the top. The bird love picking out insects and digging through the compost. That’s smarter – not harder.
The reasons to compost are myriad – and, as you can see, it doesn’t have to be rocket science. Using everything is key in TEOTWAWKI survival situations. If supply lines shut down, you’re not getting any more 10-10-10. So either stock up now or learn how to use the many sources of plant nutrition you already have at your fingertips.
Has anyone else experimented with extreme composting? Share your experiences – we’d love to hear them.