Compost for Self-Sufficient Gardening (what goes into it?)

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Making compost

We didn’t know about compost when we started down this self-sufficiency path. We were ignorant then; however, things have changed. After learning how to make this extraordinary material in the permaculture design certificate course (7 years ago), we have made many batches. We can confirm the benefits of undertaking this task.

Hopefully, this article helps you with the process of reaping the benefits that good compost can deliver.

What is the process of composting?

The composting process is the biological and chemical transformation of nutrients, minerals, and trace elements from fixed static structures into plant-available forms. This process allows the mineral components to be immediately available to plants when needed. What can be composted includes leaves, mulch, veg scraps, animal manures, and even bodies of dead animals.

It is a natural process in every natural environment except the ice caps at both poles. However, the compost processes in natural environments typically take place far slower than our methods.

As gardeners, composting gives us the potential to fine-tune the components of the compost to suit the growing conditions of the climatic and environmental zones where we reside.

Most often, in natural environments like forests, vegetation will collect in certain spots, particularly near the edges of streams and rivers where the flood debris tends to pile up. These are natural composting zones that create great compost, but it often takes time to happen.

We gardeners can do well if we observe and mimic this natural process. With some applied knowledge, we can fast-track and significantly improve the compost quality as we need it.

How long does compost take to make?

The fastest method of creating compost that we are aware of takes about 28 days to be garden ready. It is called the Berkley method, and we practice/use this method here, where we are in the wet tropics of NE Australia.

Composting timelines can depend on your available materials and the climate at your location. Because compost is a biological activity, the warmer the environment, the faster the process will typically be.

What do I need to make compost at home?

There are a few rules to keep in mind, and the list below is a starting point for you.

  1. If it is carbon-based, it can be composted.
  2. If it is chemical in nature, it can likely be transformed into an inert and safer form (recommended for the experienced only).
  3. The more material you have available, the more compost you can get.
  4. The quicker you want the compost ready, the more work involved.
  5. There are ratios, or percentages, of ingredients required for success.

There are also a few garden implements required, as listed here.

  • A good length garden fork to turn the pile over.
  • A garden hose to wet the ingredients.
  • A tarp or cover keeps the moisture in the pile as it progresses.

1. It once lived, and it can be recycled/composted.

This very high-level observation is a mainframe way of thinking about compost. All plant material is fair game, and all animal manures are beneficial, with particular attention to cow and chicken manures.

Organic cow poo that has already been composted. Full of biology to prime the new pile.

2. Making chemicals safer to be around.

Within an active compost pile, there is a massive amount of biological activity. This activity can transform many problematic materials into more benign components that hold little risk for us as food growers.

We need to mention that this topic is a worst-case situation, and it is wise to avoid contaminants if possible.

Without getting too deep into the weeds on this, the green revolution planted the seeds for chemical farming methods many decades ago. Over this time, much of the land has been subjected to poisons and toxins that persist in the environment.

Having the skills to create good compost that can lock up many of these chemical compounds allows us to be more at ease with the quality of the food that we grow with our composts.

Having said that, we strongly advise you to be careful if chemicals are involved. If possible, avoid the questionable materials altogether. Experienced operators only here.

3. Bigger means better.

There are benefits to making large compost piles, and having more compost available to use once finished is a side effect of the primary one that we can discuss here.

In simple terms, a large mound creates far more heat than a small pile can. It is through the biological activity within the pile that the heat is generated. The more material there is for the microbes to play with, the more active and hotter the compost pile.

Heat is an essential process for converting some of the components into more beneficial forms. So it stands to reason that we want to see heat present.

This is not to say that a smaller amount cannot or will not turn into plant-available components; it is a simple observation that the compost pile needs size to speed things up. We have put together small heaps that have turned out fine; they take a little longer.

4. A faster process means more work for us.

This is an unavoidable fact. The primary processes within a compost pile require some basic ingredients first up.

  • Carbon-based materials like wood chips, cardboard, dry vegetation, and things where there is less moisture.
  • Nitrogen-based materials like green matter from the garden, lawn clippings, urine, animal manures, and even dead critters.
  • Moisture to keep the compost active because a dry mix retards biological activity greatly.
  • Airflow to keep the process aerobic. Without oxygen, the compost can turn anaerobic, creating harmful strains of microbes that we don’t want in the garden, especially near food gardens.

It is the process of keeping the oxygen levels up that creates the workload for us. A good hot compost pile will need turning over every 48 hours to keep it active and safe. A large pile can be a handful if you are elderly or have aches.

The end result is worth it, though.

How much compost do I need?

This depends on how active a gardener you are or intend to be. If you plan for a shovel full for each seedling, you can get some perspective on what you require.

This single shovel full should get you through the typical growing season of an annual vegetable like cabbage or zucchini. Heavy feeders like corn will appreciate a bit more, although it can be spread throughout the growing season via two applications.

Here in the tropics, we will use the compost as fast as we can make it. We generally apply about half a wheelbarrow of compost per large metal raised garden bed before planting. We try to plan the compost piles ahead of time, but this doesn’t always work out for other reasons.

In more temperate zones, a single large pile can provide enough to get you through the growing season. Our growing season never stops, as there are just two speeds to it. Fast in winter and faster in the wet summer, so we are always behind the curve with feeding the garden.

How long will compost last in the garden?

The best compost will see you through several months before it has depleted the best it has to offer. This is not the end of its usefulness, though, because it converts to soil over time and still holds plenty of the organic matter that we all desire to build into our soils. Over time the soil cannot help but get better and better.

It should be noted here that covering the soil/compost mix with a good layer of mulch will significantly extend the longevity. The compost is a seething mass of beneficial biology, so we want to protect them as well as we can. Open exposure to the sun will stop them in their tracks.

Over time, by applying compost to your garden regularly, your garden will become more productive, the quality of the produce is better, the soil will become more fertile over time, and we get a bit of exercise. What’s not to like about this picture?

Do I have to stick to a recipe for compost?

This is the best part of the article for me. Aside from following a basic set of guidelines, what you choose to put in your composting process is totally up to you. The basic guidelines are these.

  • The ratio of dry carbon-based ingredients to the wetter, more volatile nitrogen-based should be around a 25-1 blend, with a latitude of 5-10% on either side of this.
  • If you are too heavy with the dry carbon-based browns, the compost will have trouble maintaining heat.
  • Suppose the ratio is heavy on the green nitrogen side, the pile risks becoming soggy and will shrink in size noticeably as the process progresses. This type of mix is one that can become anaerobic because of the high levels of moisture incorporated in the greens. It can get smelly as well.
  • If the ratio is in the happy zone, the end product can be very close in volume to the initial pile that you started with.
This clip shows the process of putting a pile together.

Ingredients beyond the basics.

This is where you get to be creative and become the garden chef. Here in our yard, we like to add as many different ingredients as possible. This helps with the diversity of microbial life forms at the heart of the composting process. The more microbes that material is exposed to inside the compost pile as it works, the better for our garden.

So, to touch on the materials we often use, it includes a mix of fermented plant matter known to hold high levels of a particular nutrient or mineral/element.

This pile has a batch of fermented coffee berry flesh, moringa leaves, mulberry leaves, and sweetleaf leaves (Sauropus andronicus). Potassium is the target here.

We also add rock dust to the compost pile and chicken manure collected from the roosting house. These chicken droppings are the result of feeding the birds with a bespoke blend of fermented seed, cooked rice, and rock dust blended with fine biochar.

biochar processed for composting
Chunks of biochar powdered and added to the compost pile.

Compost ingredients also include raw biochar that we create here on-site. We are well aware of the potential of this material and experimented with it several years back when it was all the rage.

With a few years under our belts now, we are confident that this ingredient will play a large part in our fertility plans moving forward.

Conclusions.

Composting is the cornerstone of soil building for self-sufficient home life. It gathers recycling, yard maintenance, soil creation, and exercise into one process and delivers great fertility to help grow nutrient-dense food at home.

We strongly recommend picking up the skill. In fact, this skill is one of 23 skills that help in self-sufficient living.

Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.