Compost Surprises: Unexpected Things Can Spring From (And Even Help) The Process

If you maintain a compost area or container, you'll find that our common discards often result in uncommon "offspring" or volunteers to assist us.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Shutterstock

The compost bin is no boring back corner of the lot. There’s a lot going on, whether we watch the process or not. We throw out the worst parts of our best food, and often the best parts too: juicy, nutty, fibrous tidbits that our human bodies can’t digest. We offer the pieces to the elements, which freely work them down into a rich humus—black gold—that restores fertility to our gardens. It’s no wonder that compost attracts a certain population of scavengers, decomposers, detritivores and opportunists. What have you found in the compost that you weren’t expecting?

Wildlife In Garden Compost

Occasionally the warmth and aroma of a compost pile attracts mammals other than humans. A friend found an opossum’s nest in her compost. This wandering marsupial was probably enjoying the protection of a semi-permanent structure for a change, as it is not adapted to surviving cold winters and relies on scavenging. The value of this helpful decomposer might be worth leaving a little space for in the compost bin, or better yet, giving it a bin of its own if you can spare the room. (There are pros of having an opossum in the garden.)

Rodents might not be quite as welcome as the opossum. In a community garden where I volunteered, I found one baby rodent in a compost bin. I strongly discouraged the management from using rodenticide—I couldn’t imagine spending the effort to grow an organic garden and then setting rat poison along the perimeter. We waited a few days, though, and the next time I visited this urban garden, a red-tailed hawk circled above and landed on a stump. I hoped it would find the food it sought and remove our unwanted compost residents. This bird of prey regularly visited the neighborhood for the rest of the season, and as we gardened we would pause and watch it soar. We didn’t see the hawk catch anything, but the rodents didn’t show up in the compost again. The managers and I were glad the hawk was not inadvertently poisoned by rodenticides, and we were happy to see wildlife on a regular basis—wildlife that posed no threat to our garden and that our garden might help in a small way.

Domestic Animals In Deep Litter Compost

In the wild, animals are part of the compost process. Their skin, fur and bones break down into the minerals that feed the plants. Animals also participate in decomposition, mixing up and contributing to the soil recipe. The four basic ingredients for compost are carbon (browns), nitrogen (greens), air (turning) and water (rain or other liquids). Wild pigs root around, small mammals burrow, birds scratch and peck, and big animals such as bears knock down dead wood and break up tree bark. Meanwhile, everything poops and pees. All the leaf litter, grass and dead vegetation in a forest would be a rotting, stinky mess if all the animals, large and microscopic, didn’t get involved and mix it up, break it down, stomp it and stir it around. It’s only natural that farm animals can help with the same process in deep litter composting.

Many people are surprised when they learn this obvious approach. I’ve seen it at a public education farm: a chicken coop basically inside a compost pile. Another angle is a chicken run (or any type of fenced livestock area) being one big compost pile. In the model I’m familiar with, chickens, pigs and ducks coexist inside a small fenced yard. The ground inside the fence is padded with about 2 feet of dry straw, which provides the browns of the compost recipe. The greens are the seconds from the farm: the aptly named pigweed and henbit that are weeded from the rows, overripe tomatoes, kitchen scraps and other substandard foods. Aeration happens as pigs shovel the straw and dirt around with their noses, looking for grubs or beetles as a source of protein. Same for the ducks, although they like to have a muddier consistency for finding buried treasures. As it happens, ducks are wet poopers, plus the pigs make a big splash in the duck’s wading pool, so moisture is usually present in the deep litter. If it gets too wet and soggy, more leaves from fall cleanup, grass clippings, or a couple of straw bales can top it off and absorb some moisture. Harvesting the finished compost happens once a year, and fresh straw is brought in to start the process over. Surprisingly, this compost method has no odor, as the natural balance of microbes and speed of decomposition is generally easy to maintain.

Domestic Plants Gone Wild

Unless you are meticulous about removing seeds before tossing out food scraps, you’ll be blessed with a surprise plant every once in awhile. When I lived in Colorado, I tried to save the a sprouting avocado that looked quite healthy in the dank compost. Potted up in a sunny window with a mountain view, far from its tropical motherland, the plant didn’t survive the arid weather and high elevation. On the other hand, many a gardener has tangled with the uninvited yet curiously vigorous mystery squash.

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Hybrid squash or gourds might be the most common volunteer sprouting from compost. From my experience, butternut and delicata varieties are counted among the hardiest. Often, a vine arising from a compost pile is unidentifiable until it sets fruit, and even then, the identity can mystify the gardener.

compost squash
Karen Lanier

Take our mystery compost squash, for example. It began innocently enough, and we decided to let it grow and see what became of it. In about a month, it has gone from ground level, up over the fence onto the neighbor’s side, worked its way along the top of the fence for about 9 feet, then reached up and climbed up a 30-foot holly tree. It could be working its way toward the light, and it has about 10 feet to go before it reaches the top of the tree. How will we harvest the fruit? What will it even be? We might just leave the fruit of this vine for the birds, because those holly leaves are not worth battling, and I don’t want to call a firetruck for a ladder that tall.

Another squash arose from the compost at a community garden. At my request, a tenacious vine that survived a big compost harvest was given its own space to grow. I created a supportive trellis for it by bending wire fence panels into a low archway that kids could crawl through. The Tunnel of Squash was an impromptu magical land that hung heavy with fresh, healthy food in a place labeled as a food desert. The bigger challenge was introducing butternut squash to folks who’d never had it, didn’t know when to harvest it and didn’t know how to cook it.

Compost Philosophy

Reflecting on the process of composting brings up thoughts on the cycles of life, gifts of fertility, inevitable decay and unending restorative power of nature. When you add to, turn or harvest your compost, I invite you to embrace unexpected guests that appear in the muck and mire of your discards and at least allow space to contemplate their significance. It’s pretty amazing what can grow out of the debris when given a chance.

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