Apropos that I write about composting this week seeing as how we just hauled three trailer loads of the black gold from a nearby dairy farm, to supplement our own supply of the stuff. We place four trash cans on our little tow-behind trailer, and drive perhaps five miles and hand load our prize. It is well worth it. Oh, I suppose the easy thing to do would be to just drop by the local hardware store and get some of that fertilizer that comes in a bottle. But no. Alas, we’d rather toil in the hot sun, hand shoveling the naturally organic matter that we call compost.

Why not make your own? you might ask. We do. Lots of it. All the time. In fact, we go to great lengths to make compost, and we are getting pretty good at it. We just don’t generate enough organic matter. Turns out that many larger organic farms also travel off campus to procure compost.

So, I wanted to encourage you all to make and use compost. You may not want to go the lengths that we do, which I’ll explain in the future, but at least do ‘some’ composting, as opposed to sending all of your organic matter to the landfill/transfer station. What is organic matter? Anything that was once alive. Plants and animals. Not man made things like plastic. Collecting all of your what we call organic matter, and putting it somewhere, what we call a compost area, or bin, is the act of composting. I was actually composting a long time ago when I would place things like coffee grounds, egg shells, and vegetable scraps in a can and when full dump it in an obscure corner of the back yard near the garden. Of course, at this rate I did not make much compost, either. Then again, back then I was fertilizing my garden from a bottle from the store. I was oh so bad. Nowadays I know better.

These days I make a concerted effort the find anything and everything organic on the homestead, for composting. Instead of a can in the kitchen we have a five gallon pail. Whenever I weed the garden, that waste is collected and placed in the compost area.

We have chickens and goats. What a great source of compostable material. Pet droppings do not go into the compost bin. I’m not sure why; I think I read somewhere that you should not use that source.

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. How does one go about making a compost bin, or area. I say ‘area’, because really at its most elemental, all you need is a place to heap the compostable materials, and then let nature take care of the rest. But if you happen to be of the tidy sort, you may want to make your compost heaps look organized. To do this I build bins. I have a book by a well-known organic farmer in Maine who suggests using straw bales to make an enclosure to use as a compost bin. We tried that our first year homesteading in Maine, and it worked fairly well. We stopped doing this because the straw bales were somewhat expensive, and I just ended up making more formalized compost bins from scrap wood, that could be used over and over again. I make our compost bins four feet wide by four feet high, by four feet deep. Into this bin you will want to layer your compost material. A good compost pile is made from nitrogen, carbon, and water. Nowadays it is trendy in the gardening world to speak in terms of ‘green’ (nitrogen) and ‘brown’ (carbon) material. So, green just-cut grass or just-picked weeds are a good source of nitrogen. If you have livestock the droppings will also contribute greatly to your nitrogen input. For carbon you want to look for old or dead grass, weeds, the nicely dried out stuff. Old hay and straw works well for this. Leaves that have dried and mulched work well, too. Water is an important ingredient as well. Rain is an excellent source of water, and its frequency works out just about right; too much water is not good. We keep a thermometer in our compost bin-in-progress, the one we’re working on at the moment. The warmer the temperature the faster the organic matter is breaking down. One hundred and twenty degrees give or take is excellent. If your pile is not reaching that temperature, it might be lacking one of the three ingredients. it might only need watering. Or, you might have too much of either ‘green’ or ‘brown’. To fill your compost bin you could just toss the various elements in randomly, but we like to layer the green, brown, and then maybe a little bit of dirt, then another layer of each, about how you’d make a lasagne. When the heap is finished to the top I like to cover the whole thing so that it doesn’t receive too much water from then on. We like to let our compost heaps or bins sit for about a year before using the ingredients. You will read where some folks accelerate the process with chemicals, but we just let nature take its course.

We actually have four types of compost bins. We have the four by four by four wooden bin, that I will talk more about next week. We have a little wire bin just for kitchen scraps, layered with old animal hay. Then we have what we call the “Nearing” bin, which is made from six foot poles of cedar laid out log cabin style the way Scott and Helen Nearing used to do. And finally, we have just piles of old animal bedding. Theoretically we could use just one of any of these styles of bins, but I love to experiment, and so I am trying to see which method works best for us.

So, that’s about it. I’d love to hear some comments of how you make compost heaps. Thanks for reading and join us next week as we talk about compost toilets. Oye!

Stephanie Reiser

About Stephanie Reiser

After many years in retail sales, writing, and part-time editing for a small newspaper in New York, I began studying organic gardening and farming, and animal husbandry. I began to read a lot about homesteading, off-grid living, consumerism, materialism, economics, and economic history.