Life Attracts Life
This page will walk you through the four most effective ways of composting in an urban garden.
- Cubic Yard or Traditional Compost
- Liquid Compost
- Lasagna Garden or In Place Compost
- Acid-Based Compost
A quick note on what Compost is and what it isn’t.
Compost is organic matter and dirt that has decomposed sufficiently and is attractive to microbial, fungal, and insect life. It is not fertilizer so much as it is an amendment you can add to soil to encourage and attract life up into your garden and encourage life to grow within your soil. It’s important to reframe the way you think about the medium you grow in. When you think about growing you need to understand the difference between DIRT and SOIL.
- Dirt is a collection of minerals and inorganic stone and media that will not sustain life. [Desert Dune Model]
- Soil is dirt that is combined with organic material, microbial, fungal, and eukaryotic life. [Forest Floor Model]
When you think about compost, consider thinking about it as the combination of the Desert and the Forest Floor.
All soil contains dirt, but not all dirt contains soil. Compost is a literal recreation of the forest floor. It is not only a source of nutrients for your gardens, it is also a source of food for all the life in it. Compost is created through the basic processes of life. Therefore you need to expect that a cubic yard of raw material is going to drop by half that volume as it is consumed by life. That is the cycle of life.
The structure of compost is very important.
Life needs a variety of materials and food to thrive. In compost this is a combination of dead (browns) and alive (greens) materials. The life that will process compost for you needs these green and brown materials to be layered for composting process to be effective.
- Browns are things like twigs, dead leaves and cardboard or shredded paper.
- Greens are things like green leaves, grass clippings or vegetable peels.
- Generally speaking browns will be dry and devoid of water, and greens will still have moisture in them.
When you build compost you need to provide enough material energy and time for the process of digestion to begin.
Each of the three processes here will require:
- Raw Material (greens and browns in adequate amounts)
- Water (enough to support life)
- Energy/Time (enough energy from the sun and time to digest)
Some of these processes can be sped up (as with liquid compost) but in general the cubic yard and lasagna garden methods are the best for sustaining life whereas the liquid compost is great for jump-starting life in low nutrient soil until adequate compost can be mixed into your existing soil. Cubic Yard compost must be turned if you want to speed up the process. You can reduce the length of time required to produce compost from 18 months to 6 months if you turn it regularly, and add a lot of water. But in general nature will need one winter and two springs to produce compost on her own. Plan accordingly and be willing to do the work required to gain that 12 month advantage. There is no such thing as a free lunch in nature.
Cubic Yard or Traditional Compost
This is the most common form of composting. It is called cubic yard composting because in order for the active composting to begin, there must be enough critical mass for the microbial and fungal life to survive and thrive in summer, fall, winter, and spring. The cubic volume protects the life at the center of the compost and attracts more life to it. Therefore it is reasonable that anything BELOW a 36″ x 36″ x 36″ (1 cubic yard or meter) cube of material will do, a larger pile will do it faster.
It is really difficult to amass a cubic yard of material in an urban environment. You also need to keep this material safe from predators. so a few precautions about Cubic Yard compost.
Build a Compost Bin
The best way to do this is pallets as they are cheap and plentiful. Some people like to use concrete blocks. You can also just build a pile. If you just build a pile, be aware you will need MORE than a cubic yard of material as it will spread and the critical heat threshold will take approximately TWICE as much material as you’d need if you contained the pile in a bin. Locate your compost bin well. You will want it to collect rain water easily (use a hose or five gallon bucket of water during the hot summer each week to keep it hydrated) and you’ll want as much sunlight as possible.
Organize Your Compost Bin Site
You’ll also want a space in front of your compost bin to sort and store materials. The layering of greens and browns is not always the same rate – especially in spring and summer – so you’ll want to be organized enough to hold onto materials as you collect them. There is no reason to be precise about this. You will be turning all of this after all. But the layering makes a difference in the way the pile will hold and process water. So initially as you are building this, pay attention to the layering.
Turning Your Compost Bin
Technically you don’t need to turn a compost bin, but it will be better if you do. In the forest, animals, insects, and natural processes are constantly turning the material on the floor. It introduces more air, water and sunlight (energy) into the floor. The same is true with Compost. The more you turn it, the faster the microbes, fungus and insects will process it. Be aware that compost comes to life from the ground up as well as from the material down. The richer and more diverse your compost bin is, the better the end product. Try to turn your compost bin at least once a week. This can be done in a lot of ways. You can buy a pitchfork or a garden fork. You can buy a turning composter (not my first recommendation as they are RARELY one cubic yard in volume). You can just let your compost rot naturally. This works in nature, but it will add @12 months to the process.
Adding Life To Your Compost
Your compost bin is alive. Well technically life is taking place within your compost bin. There are no rules that say you can’t speed this up though! Add worms to your compost bin in spring, summer and fall. Add active fertilizer to your compost bin (microbial life). You can be sure that animals will be looking through your compost. Cats, dogs, raccoons, possums, mice and rats will be checking out your compost. That’s just the way life is. If you want to be safe, it’s best to limit the types of life you propagate and attract though. DO NOT add meats, fats, or whole fresh fruits and vegetables to your compost bin. These will attract the wrong kind of microbes and vermin. You will definitely have a rat infestation this way, You want to make sure your compost stays more forest floor and less city dump.
Chewing Your Food
Just like when you eat a meal, to digest your food well, you must chew it well first. The same is true with compost. If you put whole leaves (green or brown) or large amounts of paper in your compost you will have to wait for entropy to break that down. It is going to add a lot of time to your composting cycle. If you can, shred your leaves, cut up your peels and scraps, shred your paper, and chop up your twigs as fine as possible. Your composting will go much faster this way. Even if you are actively turning your compost, if you see large amounts of greens or browns on top, be sure to add the opposite on top of that. If you see big pieces here and there, take the time to shred or tear that up. It will really pay off in the end.
Harvesting Your Compost
The final step in a compost bin is harvesting. You’ll know when your compost is ready when the color is rich and dark and the texture is flaky and crumbles easily in your hand. The best way to tell if your compost is ready is to smell it. It should smell fresh and earthy; like the forest floor of just after a rain. The color, texture, and smell of compost will tell you when it is ready for harvesting. You only need to experience this once to have an instinct when this is true.
Using Your Compost in a Garden or Container
When you harvest your compost, think of it as perfume. You don’t need a lot to have a big impact. You can sprinkle your compost on the top of your bed or container. About an inch deep or less is fine. You can mix it into your soil if the consistency is too dense. Compost is great at improving the soil structure. You can also leave it as a top dressing. When you water the nutrients will filter out of the compost and into your soil.
A few facts about liquid compost
- First, it’s not really compost, it is highly effective fertilizer.
- Second, it can be dangerous if you do not use it correctly.
The basics of Liquid Compost. Unlike traditional compost which needs a source of NHCOPS, a bin, time, water, sunlight, and time to produce, this form of compost can be produced within 24 hours if you use these ingredients:
- A five gallon bucket
- Five gallons of rain water
- If you use city water it must sit exposed to fresh air and sunlight to neutralize Chlorine and Fluorine which comes with city water
- Four cups of manure
- The BEST manure comes from herbivores (plant-eating animals)
- I use chicken, duck, rabbit, horse manure and worm castings
- If you don’t have access to manure, you can buy it from Lowes, Home Depot or Menards
- You can buy worm castings, and chicken droppings in a product called “Chicken Doo-Doo” it is amazing and organic
- Another great source of manure is compost and manure you can also buy at big-box home improvement and gardening stores
- Mix in one cup (8 oz) of urine or 1/2 cup 4 oz of ammonia
- ‘homemade’ ammonia is better as it also contains uric acid which is a useful component
- You all know your kids will be down with giving you pee to make this fertilizer, and it’s a great lesson in biology…
- Add in a 1/4 cup 2 oz of syrup (super critical)
- Hook up an aerator with at least one air stone
- Mix these ingredients with a stick
- Add the air stone and turn on the aerator
- Let this run for 24-48 hours straight
- When it is done “brewing” you can use it
- You CANNOT pour this directly onto plants
- It is highly acidic
- dilute 8 oz of this potent fertilizer into 1 gallon of water
One five gallon bucket of this fertilizer will produce 16 1-gallon doses. A little goes a long way. 1 Gallon = 128 oz 128 oz/8 = 16
Lasagna Garden Compost
This is my preferred version of compost as it takes advantage of permaculture concepts and plays on Nature’s strengths and built-in processes. The alternate name for this type of composting is “in place” composting. This form of composting is an actual ANALOG model for the way a forest floor works. The process is simple.
It all starts with site preparation. If you are using containers to grow food this is a mute point. First mark out your garden beds. then remove the grass. The most efficient way to do this is to rent a sod cutter. The sod cutter cuts the grass into rolls. You can then sell or donate these rolls of sod. NOTE: Do not try to compost sod. Grass is actually a weed and it is quite prolific. If you put sod into your compost and you don’t get the temps of the compost up to around 50C (120F) that grass will DOMINATE. and you will regret it. The next step is creating a floor/weed barrier.
The Time to Build This System
This process is NOT immediate. Nothing of value is really immediate. It takes years to mature, months/years to fall in love, and it will take time for this type of garden to mature. If yo are seeking quick solutions to your garden needs, this is a longer-term strategy. You can start this process early though. It’s a process called Double Digging. It is labor intensive, but it will build a bed you can use immediately. Here is the five basic steps to building a basic garden bed.
- Mark your bed location and remove all the grass
- Starting at one end, push your shovel into the dirt about 20cm (8″) and dig across the short axis of that bed
- Place ALL of that row of dirt into a wheelbarrow or bin
- Dig the next row horizontally and move that row into the previous row
- Repeat this all down the row
- The last row you will use the dirt from the first row
This will reset your bed to introduce oxygen, nutrients, space and water into the bed. After you are done digging add Bone Meal, Sand, Blood Meal, Horse Manure (if you can get it) and Chicken Doo Doo into the bed. This is your baseline nutrient base. Next water this really well. this will distribute the nutrient matrix well. you can plant this bed immediately. After this initial season you will never have to add anything but raw materials to your garden bed.
The next season is when you will start building your lasagna bed.
The Weed Barrier of a Lasagna Garden
You create a barrier to the dirt and clay soil that exists where you are. You must first create a moisture barrier at the base of your lasagna garden. This moisture barrier must be able to accomplish two things:
- It must be able to hold moisture
- It must be able to decompose naturally
For this reason tradition polyester or polypropylene based ‘weed barriers’ are not appropriate. The best weed barrier is untreated cardboard (like an amazon box) brown and NO PACKING TAPE! If you don’t have that, newspapers work, but there must be at least a 1/8″ (4mm) of newspaper. It has to be thick enough that weeds can’t grow through. This will be the base of your lasagna garden.
The Shape of the Mound is Critical
Because this is a ‘No Till’ garden (you won’t use a rototiller ever) you don’t have to worry about layering the garden as the life coming up from the ground will be doing all the work for you. So on top of the weed barrier you will stack materials in depths of 5 cm (2″) each. you’ll want to create a mound that is at least 10″ tall here. The mound will naturally taper at the edges and that is OK. Picture the insects, fungi and microbes coming up through the center of the mound; They will start in the middle and push to the edges. They will naturally avoid the cold or the sunlight. So the geometry of the mound makes it necessary for the worms, bugs, fungi, and microbes to ‘eat’ the cardboard/paper barrier and thus the lasagna garden will become an ecosystem extension of the earth itself. It is really miraculous the way this happens.
The Browns and the Green are Not Critical
Again because this type of garden bed is a no-till garden, the layers are not critical. The nutrient bases become far more important not where they are in the bed. My typical lasagna garden bed contains eight types of nutrients:
- Cardboard (C)
- Manure (C N H P S O)
- Grass clippings (C N H P)
- Shredded Leaves (C N H P)
- Peat Moss (C N H P)
- Straw (CHP)
- Water (H O)
- Soul (C H O S)
You can add these in however you want. I suggest adding the cardboard first, then the soil, then the manure, then the peat moss, then straw, then peat moss, then leaves, then peat moss, then soil. Soak the entire bed with water. Then let it sit over winter. You can cover it, but your cover will rot away. By spring your bed will be ready to Rock and Roll.
In the spring, late February or early April you are going to want to mulch this bed. You must mulch this bed for two reasons:
- It is very fertile and the weeds want to live too
- The sun will evaporate all the water out of this bed in short order
Types of mulches are important. If you want my opinion for the BEST mulch it is fabric-grade burlap from a fabric store. Yes, it is $3.00 a yard and I need 72 yards of fabric to cover my beds. At full price this is $287. That’s why I buy it all through the year when I have 60% Off coupons. It ends up costing me @ $100.00 and I buy it in all kinds of crazy colors. But it will all fade down to burlap color by summer. #Physics It’s important that you mulch, but cheap burlap from Lowes, Menards, Home Depot will not work. It is too loose in its weave and it actually PROMOTES weed seeds to take root in your Compost gold mine. Paper (multi-layers or they will blow away) or even cheap sheets from thrift store are a better option. you must allow water in, and keep unwanted seeds out. Sunlight in the soil is irrelevant. Seeds don’t need sunlight to sprout and germinate; they need soil and water. When you are ready to plant, cut through the mulch with a 5cm (2″) slit and plant your seed. This system makes knowing where you planted anything immediately obvious.
Yard (Hardwood) Mulch
A quick note on using yard mulch, like hardwood mulches; These will do the job, but because they are so bulky, geometric, and large you will have to use a lot more mulch. They are also generally speaking more acidic so you’ll have to watch for that as you want your soil Ph level to remain around 6.5 and not spike above 7. An additional limitation is that the shape of the lasagna bed is going to be a problem because the mulch will naturally roll away from the top of the bed and collect at the lowest part of the mound. That is why sheet mulch is a much better option.
There is a fourth type of compost/fertilizer I want to talk about. Acid compost is composed of three basic ingredients;
- Coffee grounds
- Shredded banana peels (in a food processor or blender)
- Crushed egg shells (in a food processor or blender)
- Be advised that this fertilizer has a lot of NHCOPS in it – especially the PS that make it smell really quickly! Store this in a sealed container!
- Imagine what banana peels and egg shells are going to smell like in three months…
I refer to this as acid-based compost because this compost is not really very useful to food crops. It is better suited to ornamental plants that can tolerate a higher Ph value like bushes, shrubs, roses, and trees. You can use this fertilizer on vegetables but you will have to amend it with a base to diminish the tannic acid in the coffee grounds. A cup of baking soda per 8oz of this Coffee Compost in a gallon of water will do the trick. Here at Mezzacello we have both formal gardens with ornamental shrubs and acid-loving plants like boxwood, magnolia and hydrangea. It makes sense for us to develop copious amounts of this type of compost. We go through it! If you want beautiful waxy leaves and pretty flower with super strong healthy stems, use this compost/fertilizer on them! We make a distinction at Mezzacello between food for the body and food for the soul. The beautiful things in life have value and this deserve their own special fertilizer. You can also use this type of compost in a lasagna garden bed if you add it in the late fall and let mother nature tear it apart chemically and redistribute the nutrients where she needs them. The house always wins!