When you grow a plant and then harvest it or its fruits, you take from the soil vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. The soil cannot keep giving without being replenished. A good steward of the land will return to the soil all and more than they have taken out over the year. There are many ways to re-nourish the soil. You can add compost, mined minerals, compost teas, earthworms, mycorrhizal fungi, manures, and other products that encourage decomposition or microbial activity. We are of the philosophy that the microbial activity is essential to healthy, natural plant growth.  It is the relationship that exists between the roots of plants and the microbes in the soil that we want to encourage.  The use of chemically based synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and herbicides discourages that relationship. We will discuss a natural way to renourish the soil in an effort to help you create rich, humus soils.

I recently took a trip to Washington DC and enjoyed a visit to Mt. Vernon. While there I delighted in a walk through the many vegetable and flower gardens next to the main house. Not too far from the gardens and adjacent to the stables was a large sheltered composting pile. I was impressed to see that it was an important part of every day life on the Washington estate.

With an absolute need to be  self-sustainable, the compost bin gave them a place to dispose of the straw and manure from the animals and the refuse from the garden. It was also the dumping spot for the human waste gathered out of the “necessaries” or outdoor privies. It is interesting, yet not surprising that human manure was added to the compost.  There are studies today pointing out the benefits of human urine in the compost pile.  In time the composted matter would be returned to the gardens, fortifying the soil for another year’s growth.

I have to say I never have seen as nice a “necessary” as George Washington had on his estate. Each one was very roomy and complete with three seats, or holes I should say. To my surprise, they weren’t very deep. Beneath the seats were large drawers that could be removed and taken over to the compost pile where the human waste was combined in a huge pile with all the other plant and animal waste.

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 9.18.14 PMThere was a sign in front of the compost pile quoting George Washington and his composting philosophy. “A knowing farmer, who, Midas like, can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold.”

George Washington was a “scientific” farmer of his day; setting up different mixtures in different compartments of his compost box and “curing” manure into fertilizer. He ordered that trash of every sort and kind about the houses and in the holes and corners that would make dung be thrown in. Instead of raping the land like so many tobacco farmers were doing, he was determined to build up his soils. Upon learning how hard tobacco was on the land, he switched to growing wheat.

How To Create Compost

By returning to the earth all that we no longer need, we allow the natural processes of time and temperature to turn everything back into rich, living soil again. It’s truly an amazing process.

There is a science to composting and it is important to understand the principles so you won’t introduce weed seeds, pathogens, or disease to your garden beds.

Compost piles can be anything from a spot on the ground where you choose to create a pile, drums that can be turned, or a bin that keeps the pile more contained. George Washington’s compost pile was in an area about 12 x 30 with a low retaining wall around it and a roof built over it. The sides were open. My compost pile is divided into three sections, the first is the one we are adding ingredients to, the second is the one we are turning and adding water to, the third is the one we are using. My neighbor uses a drum.

our compost
tumber compost

The basic compost recipe

Combine: Plant material, egg shells, coffee grounds, animal manure, grass clipping, shredded paper, table scraps (anything that was grown).

Add: a couple shovels full of soil sprinkled liberally about the pile. The soil is full of microbes that will speed the process of decomposition. You can also add earthworms to the pile. They will eat many times their weight in plant and animal waste every day.

Add: water every now and then. Turn a sprinkler on the pile just enough to soak it thoroughly. Water provides moisture, helping the microbes with their work of decomposition. A large community of microbial activity heats the pile up. You don’t have to keep it soggy wet all the time, just provide moisture.

Mix: Turn the pile often. Once a week is advisable. More often is great. Turning the pile puts oxygen into the pile and also helps elevate the temperatures to the point where pathogens, disease, and weed seed will be destroyed. In a drum, that can happen quickly and the entire load is more uniformly composted. When working with a pile, it is important to get all the sides of the pile turned into the middle. A good compost pile will reach 130 °.

Composting Tips

#1 If you have a lot of plant waste, especially woody plant waste, and no manures, your compost will probably be low in nitrogen. In order to break plant material down and turn it back into soil, a lot of nitrogen used. Thus your compost will be low in nitrogen. Add it back in with chicken manure, ammonium sulfate (good for high alkaline soils) or urea.

#2 Turn your pile until decomposition is complete. The temperature of the pile should cool down. A white film should appear on the outer edges of the pile. It should be dark, rich looking and free of visible plant waste. For most home gardeners, it takes a long time and a lot of turning to get rid of weed seed, pathogens, and potential diseases. So be patient, turn your pile often and give it 6 months to a year to cure.

#3 You can’t add too much compost to your beds. However, compost alone will most likely fail you. I also recommend adding some form of nitrogen and minerals like those found in AZOMITE to create the most balanced soil possible. If your plants aren’t growing well, a soil test can always tell you if there are deficiencies and what those deficiencies are.

#4 Test your soils. Compost isn’t necessarily a nutrient balanced product. You can buy kits and do your own testing – they will give you an idea of whether you are high or low in PH, nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium, but they won’t give you any numbers and they wont give you results of any minerals or micronutrients. You can also send samples in to a lab that does soil testing. Three that I recommend are:

  • Midwest laboratories Inc.
  • International Ag Labs
  • Your local extension service

Here is a view of our system

working pile

This is the open pile. Every now and then we throw shovel loads of soil on top of the plant and animal waste.  We also set a sprinkler on it periodically. We use a backhoe to turn it.  I wouldn’t recommend creating a pile this large without heavy equipment to turn it.

turning pileThis is the pile we are turning and watering now and then. This pile is about 8 months old. It is just about ready to use.
using pile Here is the pile we are using. We keep it covered with a tarp when we are not putting it on our beds. It helps prevent leaching.  We also screen it for pieces of wood or large rocks and other items.

No ability to compost yourself?

Not everyone has the space available to create their own compost pile. In that case there are other things that can be done to supplement garden beds with compost. Bagged compost is usually available at garden centers. Be sure to test it for PH as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium so you will be aware of any deficiencies. You can also get to know the owners or managers of local equestrian ranches, chicken farms, llama farms, or dairies who would be willing to let you have/buy some of their composted manures.

In most cities, there is a composting program where you can purchase well aged, well turned compost. City composting programs encourage citizens to bring in their green waste from yards and gardens. They grind them up into much smaller pieces, sift out larger wood chips and nails or other metals, then begin the turning process that is required for good compost.  If you have a community of conscientious citizens who don’t throw garbage or chemically saturated waste into the community pile,  city compost is both inexpensive and nutrient rich.

Come with us on a visit to our local city composting center.