Composting With Less Labor

Learn how to make a soil salad.

by Frank Hyman
composting scraps

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto/thinkstock

There is a way to make your composting chore very easy, by making “soil salad.”

Some composting advice sounds like a cross between rocket science and gym class: monitoring strict ratios of carbon to nitrogen, turning wet compost twice a week, and rotating compost bins that could create zero gravity inside if you twirled them fast enough. I’m not knocking serious composters. I’ve turned piles frequently enough to get steamy, finished compost in a couple of weeks, but I only need compost for spring and fall planting — a schedule that even a sleepy compost pile can meet.

Thirteenth-generation Mississippi gardener Felder Rushing offers the best advice for the laid-back composter: 1) Stop throwing organic materials away, and 2) pile them up. All organic materials from the garden leaves, grass, garden clippings — eventually decompose into the brown, earthy compost found on the forest floor.

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I’ve found a method that allows me to add kitchen scraps to the mix and gives me more compost with less labor. The time I save by leaving my compost unturned gets spent turning the pages of gardening books.

If you’ve ever made a dinner salad for your family, you have all the skills necessary to make a compost/soil salad that:

a) doesn’t stink,
b) doesn’t need turning,
c) fends off garden pests,
d) doesn’t ask you to uncomfortably shovel compost from the bottom of a bin that has raw food scraps on top, and
e) creates several wheelbarrow loads of gorgeous compost.

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And just as your family eats a dinner salad, beneficial creatures living in the ground literally eat this soil salad that turns dirt into soil and soil into rich garden beds.

The three main components of a dinner salad and their rough proportions are a good parallel for creating compost:

And, whether you’re a dinner-salad maker or a soil-salad maker, you need the right tools and workspace to get the job done.

Start with two enclosed compost bins, sturdy enough to deter urban wildlife, and line the bottoms with hardware cloth. Make sure the lid has openings to allow the rain in: Dry compost is inactive compost.

Sprinkle a little garden soil over the kitchen scraps. The garden soil “dressing” distributes composting bacteria throughout the pile. They will out-compete the rotting bacteria that cause kitchen scraps to stink. Keep a garbage can full of shredded leaves and a garden fork nearby. (Mine is broken, but re-purposed.) Toss a forkful of leaves over the kitchen scraps in the compost bin to keep down fungus gnats. At this point, the cook would mix the dinner salad ingredients, but there’s no need to mix the compost ingredients.

Start filling your first bin this spring, then start filling the second one in early or mid-summer, and leave the first one alone. By fall, your first bin will contain finished, or nearly finished, compost. Feed this soil salad to your garden, and then start filling that bin again. The second bin will be finished in time for spring planting — or should we say spring feeding?

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