Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Composting

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

Composting is one of those topics that seems to have a bit of mystery surrounding it. There are entire books devoted to the subject which can intimidate even seasoned gardeners. If you have never tried composting, it's not necessarily a difficult endeavor. Basically, it can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.

Many people have been composting without calling it composting. If you have ever thrown garden debris in a pile in the corner of your garden and forgot about it, that's a very simple form of composting.

My favorite statement about composting came from a lecture I heard last winter. The person speaking was a retired Extension horticulture educator from a southern state. He summed up composting very simply by saying "Put stuff in a pile and let it rot". Essentially that's all composting is. The decomposing items release their nutrients back into the soil for current plants to use.

Composting has been around for centuries. There is evidence that ancient Greeks and Romans used manure to improve their soils. In North America, Native Americans and European settlers commonly used fish as a soil amendment. Use of organic materials as soil amendments was common practice for many during the early years of the United States.

The dawn of the 20th century brought with it a new "more scientific" view of agriculture. Scientists experimented using different chemicals dissolved in water and applied to plants to discern what chemicals were plant nutrients. They dismissed organic matter as a source of nutrients since it would not dissolve in water.

Discoveries of particular plant nutrients fueled widespread use of chemical fertilizers rather than traditional use of compost. A key person in renewing the world's interest in composting was Sir Albert Howard, a British agronomist.

Sir Howard traveled to India in 1905 and spent the next 30 years refining methods of organic gardening and composting. He concluded that the best compost was created by using three times as much plant matter as manure, and alternating these materials in layers. These layers were periodically mixed while the materials decomposed. This method was called the Indore method. In 1943 he published a book titled An Agriculture Testament based on his work in India. This earned him the title of modern day father of organic gardening and farming.

J.I. Rodale is credited with continuing Sir Howard's work, bringing awareness of organic gardening and composting to American gardeners. He founded a research center for organic gardening in Pennsylvania and the magazine Organic Gardening.

I grew up in a family that routinely engaged in composting activities related to the family vegetable garden. We always tilled leaves into the garden in the fall, and most garden refuse was piled up in corner of the garden and left until it rotted. But my parents never used kitchen scraps in the garden. I remember learning about building compost piles and composting kitchen scraps in high school, but my parents didn't want one, saying it would smell bad.

Offensive odor is probably the most common excuse I hear from people as to why they don't start a compost pile. If a compost pile is turned regularly, it shouldn't smell bad. Most of the time the offensive odors are generated from bacteria that live in conditions that lack oxygen. If a compost pile is never turned, the oxygen is depleted from the center of the pile and bacteria that thrive in oxygen-poor environments build up, giving off noxious gasses as they help decompose the organic matter in the pile.

There are many different approaches to composting at home. At our house, you will find several methods in use. We do have a commercial compost bin, one that has a crank on the side to turn the compost and hasten the formation of new compost. Supposedly if you are diligent about turning the bin, you can have compost in 14 days. I'm not diligent, and we keep adding new stuff to the bin, so I've never seen compost in 14 days.

In theory at least, that compost bin should be big enough for us to add to throughout the winter months, but we've filled it by Christmas every year. After that, we've ended up putting our kitchen scraps in the garden, and tilling them in in the spring. It's not the precise method that some books would like you to follow, but it works for us.

I've been known to open my kitchen door during the winter and throw egg shells into the planting beds near our patio rather than walking them over to the garden. I had no idea how many I had thrown back there until the spring thaw. My young friend that lives next door ran up to me with a look of panic in his eyes and said "Jen! Come quick! A bird laid about a hundred eggs in your backyard!" We had a good laugh when I explained to them what they were.

We have also found that we generate less trash by composting our kitchen and garden scraps. Since our town charges by the bag for trash disposal, the decision to compost has been a smart financial as well as environmental decision for us.

Some of you that attended our g Gardening Insights Day in March may recall our keynote speaker Trudi Temple's unique composting method she called "Trudi Pits". She digs a big hole and buries whatever organic material she has on hand, whether it's garden clippings, kitchen scraps, or even cardboard boxes and junk mail. She places the items in the pit, covers with soil and places a large rock to mark the spot. When the rock sinks slightly, the area is ready to be planted again. She used to need a pickaxe to dig planting holes in her garden, now she barely needs to use a trowel or shovel.

Some tips for your home compost pile:

  • Keep your pile at a manageable size. A 3 foot by 3 foot by 3 foot pile is adequate for most yards.
  • Layering dead dry material with fresh wet materials, typically at a ratio about 25-30 parts dead dry material to one part fresh wet material. This will help speed the composting process, as will addition of manure or commercial fertilizer in between layers.
  • Bury kitchen or garden scraps throughout the season-- a process called sheet composting. This is not quite the level of a "Trudi Pit" but a smaller "bury as you go" version.
  • Do not use any items containing meat, bones, dairy products or grease in a compost pile. While they will decompose, they will smell bad in the process and attract local wildlife.
  • Shred or crush items to speed the composting process
  • Avoid placing weed seeds, diseased plants, pet waste, or manure from diseased animals in compost piles. While in theory a compost pile should get hot enough to destroy any harmful bacteria or fungi present, there is a chance it will not. It's best to not risk your family's or your garden's health by adding these items.

Compost is finished when looks like soil. It is a great amendment for potted plants, or mixed in with existing planting beds in the landscape. Most people find there is no shortage of uses for compost around the home landscape.

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