Composting: a quick-start guide

Ryan riding along....adding nitrogen-rich material to the compost pile!
Ryan riding along....adding nitrogen-rich material to the compost pile!

Compost is my favorite part of farming; decay is an absolute miracle of life! You start with a big pile of brush, that looks like garden refuse to most people, and you end with a warm, moist, sweet-smelling, black and crumbly fertilizer that boosts yields, strengthens plants against pests, and adds flavor to vegetables.

If you want to get started in your back yard, start saving your fallen leaves. Just rake them into a pile and leave them.

Next to your leaf pile, you'll want to lay out a thin, 20 cm layer of leaves, at least 1 meter by 1 meter.

When you have kitchen scraps (including paper towels, napkins, and coffee grounds), throw them onto your square layer. Grab a handful of leaves from the pile next to your layer and cover it to keep away flies and animals.

Whenever you do some weeding or pruning in your garden, add a new green layer to your compost layer cake. Cover with leaves. Rinse and repeat!


It's a good idea to water your compost layer cake at least once a week. More is fine, less is fine.  Decay is a forgiving craft.

Tips: --don't worry too much about having perfect layers. It's just an easy way to get the carbon rich material (brown, dead leaves or grasses) next to the nitrogen-rich material (manure, or green leaves and weeds) to speed up decomposition. --Build your pile in the shade so that it stays moist. Cover with a tarp if you have one to lock the moisture in. --As you add layers, use a pitchfork or rake to pull material from the center towards the edge. You want to maintain straight edges, otherwise you'll end up with a dome instead of a flat cake. A dome will cause rain and water to run-off the pile rather than soaking-in, and microbes need that water!

Our new community recycling program at Rancho Buen Dia

image blog
image blog

We asked the community to bring us carbon-rich material that they were otherwise throwing out. It's been a great success, and we now have a lot more to work with! Thank you! After working with the material, we've realised that we'd like you to keep sticks to a minimum. While sticks are compostable (on a scale of years rather than months), they make the pile a lot harder to work with. So until the day we have a bobcat tractor to do our heavy lifting, please send us stick-less garden refuse.

We are also accepting kitchen scraps. A lot of you want to minimize your garbage, but don't have space or time for a compost pile. You can bring those scraps to a bin we have set up right in front of the farm stand in Todos Santos and we'll add it to our compost piles, where it will go into making next year's organic vegetables even more nutritious!


Brewing compost tea

I have a goal to move towards a more sustainable, permaculture-oriented style of agriculture. This involves using cover crops to add habitat for beneficial insects and to take up space that would otherwise be taken by invasive weeds. Cutting cover crops and laying them in place also adds mulch to the earth which is then broken down slowly and made available to your plants in a year or so. This is how compost is made in the wild. Next time you're under a tree whose dead leaves haven't been raked away, brush the leaves away and scratch in the dirt. You'll notice about a centimeter-thick layer of compost. Underneath that the dirt is hard and probably too hard to scratch with your finger. That's an easy way to identify where the compost ends and the dirt begins. I have yet to actually begin experimenting with cover crops. We apply compost to build nutrients in the soil, but watering or spraying with compost tea is an even faster way to get nutrients to your plants. It's also a way to inoculate your soil with the good microbes that live in the compost.

You can buy a fancy compost tea brewer; you can make one with an aquarium pump; or you can do it with a bucket and a stick. Here are instructions for the hillbilly method:

1. Gather your materials Bucket Finished compost (it's important you use the best compost you can so that it's full of good microbes). Fabric for straining paint Stick for stirring

2. Fill the bucket about a fifth with compost and add water. Leave room at the top so it doesn't spill when you stir.

3. Stir often! Keep the bucket in a place you'll walk by often to encourage you to stir it more often. We want to encourage the aerobic microbes to live, which means they need oxygen.

4. After 24 hours your tea is ready to use. Strain it and dilute it 10 to 1.

You'll want to apply it to your plants right away! Water at the roots while the soil is wet. Alternatively, spray it onto the leaves, getting under the leaves as well. Plants absorb a lot of nutrients through the leaves so this a great way to give them a quick feed.

How to make a compost pile

I have seen many lists of what is and is not ok to compost. I have an easier way to remember: compost everything. My first farming mentor once composted a gallon of motor oil and three months later there wasn't a trace of it left! I composted an entire whole pig, and three months later I only found one jaw bone. One bone! Ok, let me explain about the pig...terrible neighborhood dogs killed him in the night. I didn't find him until the morning, so I was unable to harvest the meat. It was a sad, tragic time, but it did turn into a fascinating composting lesson. In case you find yourself with a body to dispose of, you should know that it was a very big compost pile, the most ambitious compost pile I ever made, and it measured about 4 by 4 by 16 feet. I dug a hole in the center of the pile, lovingly placed my pig there, and covered him back up with compost. It's important to cover anything smelly very well with the compost and to bury it deeply. The microbes in the compost will get to work right away and keep the terrible neighborhood dogs from sniffing out and digging up your compost.

But let's get back to the beginning. How do you start a powerful compost pile?

Gather materials 1. Start by gathering plenty of brown carbon-rich materials--dried leaves, newspapers, paper towels, dry weeds, straw, hay. Keep a nice pile of these ready to go at all times. 2. Get a wheelbarrow-full of green, nitrogen-rich materials--animal manures of any kind, fresh weeds from your garden, seaweed, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds. Weeds from the garden, or refuse from your vegetables, like carrot tops, are the best because they are full of the minerals that plants need.

Build your pile If you can, choose a spot in the shade. If you don't have shade, you can throw a piece of shade cloth on top when you're done.

20120928-130320.jpg 1. Using a pitchfork, or your hands, grab brown materials and spread them in a big, nice, neat square, at least 4 by 4 feet. The neater the better! This layer could be about six inches deep. 2. Now sprinkle your green materials on top. This layer should be less thick, maybe about two inches deep. Use your pitchfork or your hands to go around the edge and make it nice and straight. These are your foundation layers, and they will affect the neatness of the entire pile. 3. Spread another layer of brown on top and arrange the edges nice and neat.

If you have more green, nitrogen rich materials in your wheelbarrow, throw another layer on the pile, and keep layering until you are out of green. I always like to end on brown. Remember to keep arranging your edges!

4. Water thoroughly. If you have a sprinkler, set it up on your pile for an hour. Water at least once a week to keep the pile from drying out.

Come back and check your pile in three days. Stick your hand into the center and it should feel really hot! That means you have lots of microbial activity, which is a good thing because they are what breaks down the minerals into a form your plants can use. A mineral and nutrient rich soil that has no microbial life will be useless to plants.

Maintain your pile As you weed your garden, or mow your lawn, or come across more green materials, bring them to your compost pile and spread another thin layer. Cover with brown carbon-rich materials and water. If you just have a little bucket of kitchen waste, dig a small hole in the pile and bury your materials there.


Here you can see two piles side by side, one with brown as the top layer, and one with green. Keep the top flat so that water doesn't run off when you water.

If you want to speed up the process, wait a month or two and turn the entire pile. You'll see the pile get smaller and smaller as it breaks down. When it is about half its original height, you can start using it in the garden. Use a screen and a shovel to sift out the big parts. I always throw those in the next pile. You can also use it unsifted as mulch!