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.

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