Recipe for successful compost: just like baking cookies. (Mary Lowther photo)

Recipe for successful compost: just like baking cookies. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Secrets of the compost pile

If you’re an organic gardener, you’ve heard a lot about composting.

By Mary Lowther

If you’re an organic gardener, you’ve heard a lot about composting. Compost is the most efficient way to rebuild the soil we deplete every year by removing the nutrients that make a worthwhile harvest. Fish have to swim, birds have to fly and gardeners have to compost. It stands to reason that if we have to do something we should do it as well as we can.

Anyone can make mediocre compost that looks effective, but for a strong, substantial mix that will produce the best vegetables it helps to have a good recipe. Think about baking cookies. How important is it to have the right combination of ingredients? My peanut butter cookies are based on my grandmother’s tested method, and my compost is based on Steve Solomon’s. The following recipe makes one four by four pile:

Ingredients:

Vegetable debris

Leaves if you have them

Garden soil

Clay, if your soil is sandy

Soft rock phosphate

Alfalfa meal or chicken manure

Straw or dried grass

Thick stalks like corn or sunflower, cut into four foot lengths.

Directions:

Lay the stalks in a four foot diameter crisscross pattern on the bottom where the heap will be, two layers thick. Cover the stalks with a three inch layer of vegetable debris and two inches of leaves. Sprinkle on one cup each of garden soil, soft rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or chicken manure, and clay. I grate my clay beforehand. Keep layering until the heap reaches four feet high, and cover it with something to keep out the rain.

Next, set up another pile to hold any leftover debris and the coming winter’s food scraps. Put any leftover straw under a waterproof cover. Then, as you add the winter’s vegetable scraps, cover each layer with a few flakes of straw as you add them and keep this pile protected from rain.

By spring the first heap will have decayed beautifully, but some better than the rest. Use the mostly finished compost in your garden and toss the remaining detritus into your new pile. This compost, along with a fully mineralized fertilizer, compost tea plus fish and kelp fertilizer, will produce nutritious crops and continue to improve the soil.

I didn’t wet down each layer as I built the compost heap this year since my vegetable debris was soaked from recent rain, but had it been dry I would have dampened each layer to encourage fermentation. The crisscross pattern of stalks at the bottom allows air to circulate upward into the pile to encourage aerobic decomposition which encourages beneficial microorganisms.

The soft rock phosphate, clay and soil augment the development of stable humus within red worms as they devour vegetable debris, and nitrogen is captured in this humus instead of off-gassing as ammonia. Because it is so stable, the humus produced can provide nutrients for years. Soft rock phosphate costs more than the harder variety, but much more of it is bioavailable once it has passed through red worm guts.

Soil expert Dr. Carey Reams wrote, “The factor which determines the mineral content in any produce is the phosphate in the soil [and this] cannot be supplied from superphosphate, triple superphosphate, or hard rock phosphate. Soft rock phosphate is the only way to achieve [robust levels].” Steve Solomon has found that abundant levels of soft rock phosphate grow larger, tastier and more nutritious crops. Insufficient amounts result in stunted, less nutritious plants.

I never turn the pile as some do; I just let it sit and do its thing undisturbed and every spring I have a nice batch of compost. Since the compost is never finished there is always an abundant supply of wood bugs and slugs in the pile that will travel with the compost into the soil. My only hope is to lay the compost on the soil a few weeks before I plant in the spring, hoping that birds, snakes and frogs will enjoy the disgusting buffet. I also start most of my crops inside so by the time they’re big enough to plant out, they’re mostly tough enough to outgrow predation.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Freighter anchored off Kin Beach in Chemainus. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Cowichan MP hosting virtual town hall on freighter anchorages issue

Residents can participate through MP’s website or Facebook page Dec. 3

Santa will be in Honeymoon Bay on Dec. 13. (File photo)
Santa to visit Honeymoon Bay on Dec. 13

Families must call ahead due to pandemic

“Say cheese, uh, apple… nine-year-old Jason Moran and mum Bonnie are all smiles over a number of sales made during “apple day” of local cubs and beavers. Jason, a wolf cub, was one of 22 boys who, with the ready assistance of mothers, sold several boxes of apples in money-raising scheme for various projects.” (<em>The Lake News</em> Nov. 26, 1980)
Flashback: Crime wave, canoe misfortune and a highway lawsuit

Welcome to Lake Flashback. Reporter Sarah Simpson has been combing through old… Continue reading

Tim Schewe
Drivesmart column: Following too closely

Maintaining a buffer in front of your vehicle gives you time to recover from inattention

A bus shelter in White Rock is emblazoned with an ad from B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (Black Press Media files)
VIDEO: ‘Am I racist?’ campaign asks British Columbians to confront their unconscious biases

Signs asking British Columbians to think about racial injustice have been put up across the province

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Remains of the scene off Melrose Road in Whiskey Creek where three bodies were found on Nov. 1, 2020. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Probe continues into grisly mid-Island discovery of 3 human bodies, 4 dead dogs

Police still want to speak with motorist who picked up hitchhikers near scene on Nov. 1

An man from Errington died when his ATV went over an embankment on Northwest Bay Logging Road on the weekend. (File photo)
ATV rider goes over embankment and dies on back road near Nanaimo

45-year-old man from Errington died in incident Saturday afternoon

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaks to a reporter in Vancouver on November 13, 2015. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
No evidence that B.C. ER staff played blood alcohol level game, but Indigenous racism widespread

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond releases findings of independent investigation

The Nov. 20 WestJet flight 3171 has been identified by the BC Centre for Disease Control with a COVID case aboard. (Black Press file photo)
Fifth COVID-19 exposure reported on flight at Comox airport

Another exposure risk from flight originating in Calgary

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

B.C. Finance Minister Carole James and Premier John Horgan announce $5 billion emergency fund for COVID-19 unemployment and other relief, B.C. legislature, March 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
Carole James stays on to advise B.C. Premier John Horgan

Retired finance minister to earn a dollar a year

Most Read