Composts I’ve Known

We got to chatting about composting at our weekly permaculture discussion group meeting this week — you know, what’s the most effective way to compost: 3-bins? chicken wire containers? covered or not? how wet? ratio of green to wet, nitrogen to carbon? where to situate the compost area, how small should kitchen scraps be and can citrus, fruit pits, avocado skins, and bananas be used?, etc. — after reading our latest chapter, on building the soil, in The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture by Christopher Shein, which included bits about composting, worm bins, mulching, cover crops, compost tea, and sheet mulching.

Later, reflecting on this, my thoughts drifted nostalgically to compost piles and containers I have known over the 22ish years I’ve been trying to make my own organic soil from waste materials, a lofty and worthwhile goal I often fall short of. I know I need to keep the compost wetter (like a damp sponge) and I need to implement a multi-bin system if I ever want to use any of the compost as soil and not as unwieldy chunks of recognizable food and garden cuttings (although spreading out unfinished compost on beds is also a way to compost, if you have the space and don’t have too many critters around).

Our book chapter reminded us that the ratio of nitrogen (mostly green, wet things, like grass clippings, green leaves, kitchen scraps, cover crops, seaweed) to carbon (mostly brown things, like dead leaves, twigs, newspaper, shredded paper, straw, shavings, dried crop residue) should be 30:1; that’s the ratio recommended for hot compost, which supposedly heats the compost to 140F (60C), enough to kill weed seeds if maintained for a week or so, and which, an article on hot composting says, makes compost you can use in less than a month.

I think I do most of this — I aerate well whenever I add kitchen scraps, which is every 2-3 days, and my pile is mostly green stuff — and yet, chunks remain. Simon Watkins, in this article, recommends covering the pile with a permeable sheet and watering it a lot; he also transferred some fruiting fungi to his pile, which is something I can try.  Thermophilic composting, in A Permaculture Design Course Handbook, goes into considerable depth on the topic, with sections on ingredients, temperature and moisture and monitoring both, the size of the pile, flipping vs. turning, etc.

Anyway, as I said, it all got me remembering the good times ….

The first compost bins I ever had, on a 10-acre property in a rural town in southern Maine, were built from found pallets by my spouse and situated near the vegetable garden but too far from the house. … yet close to shed, underneath which the porcupines lived.


You can see that there were two bins, side by side:


They actually worked well but should probably have been covered. And I knew nothing about ratios and temperature then.

But aren’t porcupines cute?



The next house, in coastal Maine, had a very small and already-built-up and -planted yard when we got there, and I have no memory of a compost bin there (nor do my photos), although I do have a hazy memory of a compost container on the kitchen counter. Hmmm. In any case, I obviously didn’t know enough to keep and shred the fall leaves to spread as organic matter in the yard.



Now, here, in central NH, I’ve got arguably more know-how, but my systems, after almost 8 years, are still lagging. There’s one plastic, covered, round compost container close to the house, and the contents actually and amazingly don’t freeze in our sub-freezing (sometimes below 0F), snowy winters. Because it’s just outside a back door, it’s easy to get to it and clear it off, even after a foot or two of snowfall, so I can keep adding kitchen scraps to it every few days year-round, aerating it each time. During winter, though, I’m really not adding much brown material, except the occasional dead potted plant and its tired, nutrient-deficient dirt; I could add shredded paper, newspaper (which we usually burn in the wood stove), and probably a little sawdust from spouse’s small woodworking projects.


Below, the composter in warmer times; it’s often visited by snakes (they like to slither through the side slits), salamanders (mainly on the outside and underneath, I hope — I would hate to hit one with the aerator), moths, and fungi, and, rarely, by raccoons, who can open the lid. Once we had a bear visitor.

For the past few summers, a large pumpkin has grown outside the composter; I have never planted pumpkin seeds or plants in my yard.

garter snake at base of composter
garter snake half in and half out of composter slit
orange-backed salamander on compost lid
fungi growing all around composter
pumpkin growing just outside composter

Below, the compost bin with sheet mulching ingredients — pruned, cut-back, cleaned out, and raked up stalks, leaves, stems, etc., from perennials and shrubs — next to it … with a bonus view of one rain barrel!:


And here is some green material, Brussels sprouts leaves in this case, getting ready to go to the compost bin:


Besides the round plastic container near the house, there are also two compost bins made of pallets in the “far” backyard, about 20 yards from the back door. I have used those mainly for woody — i.e., brown — garden brush, leaves, and shredded dried grass, plus some green grass clippings. And in winter, sometimes I stand at the back door and throw too-old eggs and spoiled veggies and fruit into (or, um, near) them. And they are located under apple trees, so quite a few dropped apples rot there in the fall.


I’ve used these bins mostly for brown materials because the brown stuff — dried leaves, tangles of crop stalks, branches and twigs, shredded dried grass — often seems too unmanageable to corral into the little round plastic container but is easily dropped by the armful or rakeful into these large, open, mostly unbounded bins. And there it all sits, perhaps turning into soil in a geological timeframe but probably not in my lifetime. The stuff is useful when I need sheet mulching material, so it’s not wasted, but it’s not compost, and I sometimes find myself having topsoil and/or compost brought in from outside because I need more of it. It would be nice to make more of it.

Now I think I could try harder, from April through November, to use these pallet bins as companion composters (giving me three in all), adding more green garden material to them and bringing some kitchen scraps out to them, and at the same time I could add more of the cumbersome brown stuff to the bin near the house, so that my mix of green to brown (nitrogen to carbon, roughly) is closer to the ideal of 30:1. I could even use the pitchfork that’s usually sitting out there to turn them regularly.

There is one more compost container, a square plastic one near the shed, which I haven’t used since we’ve lived here (did it come with the yard? I think so). The quite large dark fishing spider — which has been through the wars, judging by its legs — likes it and I’ve decided that’s fine. A three-bin system is enough for me.



“If a healthy soil is full of death, it is also full of life:  worms, fungi, microorganisms of all kinds …  Given only the health of the soil, nothing that dies is dead for very long.” ~ Wendell Berry,  The Unsettling of America, 1977

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