The Compost Post

"We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends." R. Neil Sampson in Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose

One of my interests, dating back 25 years to when I was a member of my local FFA land judging team, is soil conservation. I have long been interested in things like terra preta and composting because of their ability to build topsoil. But I never thought much about how difficult it can be to build up topsoil until I read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy - Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars (great books, by the way). The books trace a future hypothetical terraforming of Mars, and one of the major difficulties the characters face is producing topsoil on the planet. It was then that my interest in the mechanisms for topsoil erosion and topsoil production greatly increased.

While I would eventually like to get some experience with producing terra preta, earlier this year I got a flyer from Waste Aware Scotland for discounted composters. So, I bought one, and started to experiment. I wish I had done so years ago, because it has really been a fascinating exercise.

My 330 Liter ecoMax

I got the larger 330 L (87 gallon) model shown above and started dumping all things cellulosic into it. There is quite a little tropical ecosystem inside the composter. Even when it is cold outside, the waste is always steaming. And not only has it attracted numerous earthworms, but there are beetles, slugs, and lots of insects I haven't been able to identify. Besides being an interesting science experiment, there are major environmental benefits from composting. According to the most recent newsletter from Waste Aware Scotland:

• It reduces waste sent to landfill

Scotland produces 900,000 tonnes of organic waste a year. That’s enough to fill Hampden Stadium more than 18 times. We could divert a large amount of organic waste from landfill by using it for home composting.

• Reduce global warming

Organic waste sent to landfill cannot decompose properly because it doesn’t have access to air. As a result, it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

• Your garden benefits

Compost improves soil, so plants in your garden become healthier and more pest and disease resistant. They will produce better fruit and vegetables and more beautiful blooms.

As I explained to my daughter, who recently told me she wants to become more environmentally responsible, there are two ways in which composting combats global warming. The first is the reduction of anaerobic digestion, which results in methane production as explained above. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, this is not something you want occurring in an open landfill. But the second benefit is that home composting reduces the mass of material that would be transported (via fossil fuels) to the landfill. So home composting is much more environmentally responsible than throwing your waste in the trash.

So, what can you compost? Again, referring back to the newsletter:

Kitchen waste:

✔ Fruit scraps and vegetable peelings
✔ Tea leaves/bags and coffee grounds
✔ Egg shells
✔ Paper items which can include scrunched up cardboard, egg boxes, toilet roll tubes, vacuum cleaner bags, cereal boxes and paper towels

Garden waste:

✔ Cut flowers
✔ Garden and house plants
✔ Grass cuttings
✔ Young annual weeds
✔ Shredded twigs
✔ Hedge trimmings
✔ Straw and hay
✔ Wood chippings and sawdust
✔ Hamster or other pet bedding

If you start to segregate your garbage, you will find that these items make up a substantial portion of what would normally go to the landfill.

Inside My Composter - Yuck

In the picture above, the composter contains about 30 gallons of composting material. But I have filled it to the top at least 10 times and haven't taken anything out of it. In other words, that 30 gallons of material was originally around 1,000 gallons. It is amazing how much the volume is reduced as it decomposes. But that also goes to show how much material it takes to produce an inch of topsoil.

So get yourself a composter( or make one) and do a bit more for the environment. You may even find that you enjoy it.


Making dirt. Take the most inhospitable environment that you control, say a gravel driveway, and turn it into a garden.

"But I have filled it to the top at least 10 times and haven't taken anything out of it."

Take some out!

This stuff is incredibly good for growing things. Compost both fertilizes (thus decreasing our need for petroleum derived fertilizers) and holds moisture in the soil (which decreases our need to pump water).

And no one has to burn fuel hauling stuff around and burying it.

(I do get your point about how little space composting can take. Thanks for the post.)

A former FFA member eh .
I wonder if the current high school FFA members study composting and soil building.

My Chapter seems to be interested only in Livestock Competition as if plants did not even exist.

And Organic is a no no.


Like 4H, the FFA will have to be overhauled.

WAG-I bet both started during the Depression.

The original inspiration for the organization began after the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917 established vocational agriculture courses. Virginia's Future Farmers clubs for boys in agriculture led to the establishment of a national organization, The Future Farmers of America in 1928

Blacks and probably people of color were not allowed until 1965.
The NFA was formed in 1935 for African-American boys interested in agriculture.

Females were not allowed until 1969

It was and primarly is about rich white landowners showing off their livestock. IMHO

It tries to do other things to preserve their funding.
I was an FFA member also

Hopefully things will change


Thank you very much. I agree.

BTW-All of those dates sync with Major SocioEconomic Events.

1917-US enters WWI

1928-Real Estate Bubble Implosions nationwide.

1928-JSTOR: Grain Growers' Co-operation in Western Canada.
It was based on articles written for the Grain Growers' Guide by Mr. J. T. Hull, ... The price of wheat slumped heavily between June and August 1928, ... - Similar pages

JSTOR: Shall We Change Our Grain Marketing System?
1928. Pre- sumably free. Grain Dealers' National Association Bulletin No. ... Reviews 401 immense supplies of grain on the market does not break the price. ... - Similar pages

by Vladimir Popov - 1990 - 352 pages
In 1926/27 and 1927/28 the planned procurement prices barely covered the cost price of the grain. It's true that in 1928/29 prices were an average of 23 ...

1965-Civil Rights Act

1969-Viet Nam

The FFA was/is a reaction to these events.

Anyone here have those green organics bins for city pickup?

At my city place, I use it for the *stinky* stuff (meat, diapers, etc). But, I have two others(same type and size) that I fill up with green compostable organics.

I then take them to my country place and compost them there.

Hate to see this stuff in a land fill.

Are you at all worried about the pigments on the paper in your bin? A lot of purists won't use colored paper.


If you're at that point in composting,
colored print(CP) should be far down the list.

EX. problems with plastic far outweigh the CP issue.

if you are so inclined... :) we appreciate it!

I've two of those actually. They work quite well. It's amazing the quantity of garbage it actually takes to fill it. It can be like 6 months with stuff going in and in and in and the next time you see it it's still on the same level (and no, it doesn't flow down). It just gets more and more thin and "composted".


Treat it like a Starter yeast mixture.

And an easy way to get rid of kitchen slop.

Earthworms particularly are great at helping compost into very excellent soil. There are units devoted specifically to earthworm based composting.

And yeah, it takes much work to make soil.

Now if you could take your largest volume of compost ready material and use it, you could produce much more. But noooo... we human beings are one of the few land based mammals that craps and pisses in our drinking water supply flushing good material out to sea. Local laws and regulations won't let you do this, Robert, but you might want to at least read The Humanure Handbook to see what else can be done.

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." -- Dr. Albert Bartlett
Into the Grey Zone

For a number of years we had three fruit lugs (stacked one on top of the other) lined with plastic for worm beds in our kitchen. We rotated green waste between them. There was no smell and the worms took care of everything.

We finally had to get rid of them when we couldn't keep our cats from digging in them.

We switched to outside composters called Green Cones (no longer sold) that do a fine job. We can't put kitchen waste in our compost piles because the ravens and other animals dig it our and make a mess.


Terra Preta in Mendocino County, CA

FWIW, I'll be doing a presentation about my work on terra preta for the Long Valley Garden Club (Laytonville, CA) some time this year. If you might be interested in attending email me (detzel at mcn dot org) and I'll let you know when something is finalized.

I've been playing with terra preta for about three years. My presentation will include historic information, current research by others, what I've been doing and charcoal making.

I'm always glad to have visitors at my home to see what I've been doing and I'd throw in a short presentation if you don't know much about terra preta. Just email me at the above addy and we can set something up.


I don't know about your neck of the woods, but most municipalities in the US don't have laws specifically forbidding the composting of one's own manure, indeed it's completely off the radar screens of most city officials. (It's not forbidden, but doesn't fit into the approved list of waste disposal systems...funny how we think of our crap as "waste" when it's a key ingredient to long-term soil viability... hardly what I'd describe as waste.) So, legally speaking, it's really it's a grey area. I think if you are discreet and don't go advertising what you're doing all over town, you'll be left alone. It's worked for me. And if you do it right, it increases the efficacy of your compost to an insane degree.

From the aforementioned Humanure Handbook:

Everywhere I go on the net only tries to scare you away from using human or dog poop in composting, claiming it brings dangerous parasites into the mix and most amateur composting doesn't get the temperature high enough to kill the bad bugs.

I look in my composter, and I don't think the temperature is very high at all, so I don't put the dog poop in there. But it seems a waste to just dump it into the woodsy part of my property.

the temperature high enough to kill the bad bugs.

Yes, BUT the 'bad bugs' ARE the food for fungi/worms/other things in a worm bin. Testing of 'bad bugs' from a vermipost system shows reduction to almost 0.

So it can be done.

We've been using the humanure system for a couple years now (our friends and us refer to "Saint Jenkins" to describe the author of the "Humanure Handbook."

You can build a compost bin from three pallets for a couple bucks, and a composting toilet system for $50.

We use ground up, sifted mulch from the transfer station (ground up yard wastes, almost entirely carbon) which we get for $15 a truck load. Then we use it as "kitty litter" for the 5 gallon bucket beneath the potty lid, scooping mulch to cover what we do.

No smells, no flies, no visual problems.

Then the buckets are dumped into the compost heap, covered with a half food of straw, and in a couple weeks there is nothing that resembles human feces.

The problem with most compost heaps is that there is plenty of carbon, but rarely enough nitrogen. You need 30:1, carbon to nitrogen. Humanure is mostly nitrogen, so it turbocharges the compost and gets it cooking.

There are conceivably two problems with humanure composting. One is aesthetic, one is health.

The health problem is solved rapidly through thermophilic composting, where the heat from the composting reaction gets the mass above 117 degrees F, and kills all mesothermic bacteria (which includes all pathogens) in a few hours. Thermophilic bacteria then take over, digest the compost, and when it cools down is recolonized by all the micro flora and fauna that inhabit top soils. Perhaps 10,000 species or so, including bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes, earthworms, etc etc etc.

Aesthetically, one can dig through the compost after a few weeks and find nothing objectionable visually. But, depending on the climate, you'll want to let the compost heap fill up, then cap it off, keep it moist, and let it set for six months to a year. At the end of that period, you'll find the most incredible looking, wonderful smelling compost you can possibly imagine. Guaranteed pathogen free. (as Jenkins shows, quoting extensively from various scientific studies, the longest lived pathogen is ascaris, roundworm eggs, which are killed off by thermophilic temperatures in a few hours. But if somehow it doesn't heat up, the time alone will kill them off.

Besides, the primary source for roundworms is not humans; it is dogs. And dog feces is ubiquitous everywhere, and is rarely disposed of properly.

I would highly recommend "the humanure handbook," even if you never intend to do it. The chapters on composting make everything else ever written redundant or irrelevant.

I have heard that dog and cat 'poop' from animals fed commercial dog and cat food (virtually all) is high in heavy metal residues. Haven't corroborated this factoid anywhere. Heard it from a friend who ran a kennel and constructed a special septic tank to get rid of the dog poop.

Re: parasites - Parasites and bad bugs will end up in your compost only if they're already in your body to begin with. (You are eating right and keeping yourself healthy, arent you?) Mind you, I was only referring to human manure, chances are higher that cat or dog poo will have some issues with that, unless they're on some special diet and never go outside. Anyway, it's the manure that gets the pile hot enough to kill unwanted germs in the first place - the microbes that love to eat poo and love heat get very active and the friction between their little bodies creates more heat, at least as I understand.

It's not friction, it's metabolic heat. Thermophilic bacteria like it hot, and when conditions are right, they multiply like made and generate lots of heat. But the pile has to be big enough to retain that heat, without getting compacted and losing its loft (i.e. aeration). It can be a tricky balance to hit.

Composting carnivore manure is entirely possible, but it's an advanced technique. I wouldn't try it personally, not being a master of hot composting techniques.

The other key with manure compost (human and animal) is to use them correctly: You can put almost anything on a tree, for example, and not have a problem. Don't use manure composts on your lettuce, though.

Re: "Don't use manure composts on your lettuce, though."

At my homestead I've been composting humanure (along with kitchen and garden refuse) for over five years now, following Joe Jenkins' Humanure Handbook instructions, and every spring (after one year of not adding anything to the compost pile) ALL the composted humus goes on our vegetable garden.

I'm still alive and our garden thrives quite well. However, I do not add pet manure because they are prone to parasites; although the thermophilic and time process would likely do them in. Still, there is no need to add this sort of animal manure when I've got plenty of better from the two legged creatures here.

It is not that "tricky" at all to do this right. My two alternating compost piles are housed outdoors in wood sheathed bins (~ 4' sq.), but I have them covered by wire screen doors to keep out marauding woodland critters.

Evolutionary Nature figured this composting thing out long ago. Humans are dumber than shit in recognizing how we too can use the same process to our advantage rather than our demise.

I'd be interested in seeing a picture of the product at the base door of Robert's compost bin. In my experience it is often a slimey mess and not really good compost. To get that he will need to stop adding stuff and let it age or cure. I'd use two bins, fill it during a year and then switch off to using the other while the first finishes.

But truly you're missing out on making great compost without adding humanure.

Manure (human or not) composts can safely be used on vegetable gardens. Mature manure composts are about as safe as ordinary garden soil (which isn't all that safe) and can be used with relative abandon. Fresh manure shouldn't be applied to vegetable gardens within six weeks of harvest. Not that there is a point to applying compost near harvest. We generally apply manures and composts to our garden either before planting or after harvest.

I think most people would be shocked at how much raw sewage is applied to farmland in North America. It's not a practice I necessarily endorse, but composted sewage is a different story. If it weren't for the heavy metals in the cleaning products that we pour down our drains, I'd happily apply it to my land.


The laws on your fecal material are for water quality protection. If you have to get a permit for a septic tank or local ordinances forbid out houses as most cities and towns do the you are in violation of laws by adding feces and urine to compost heaps

I live in Galveston, which is an island 2 miless out in the Gulf of Mexico, with the Galveston Bay system north of us. One hundred years ago this area had an immense oystering industry, but now at least 75% of the bay is permanently closed to oystering due to pollution. Its not the chemical plants and refineries, though. The largest source of pollution is "non-specific point souce pollution", which if you dig a little is fecal coliform bacteria from street run-off in Houston and its suburbs Most of that is from untreated animal waste from people's yards and even a large part of the beach near the Gulf gets contaminated, as do ocean beaches all over the country.

Shallow aquifers are dangerous places to get your water, as are untreated surface water from areas with much population and that includes factory farms. And frankly, I oppose any activity that adds to pollution in general. That includes coal plants without CO2 recapture and any run-off from untreated sewage. Pretending yours doesn't count doesn't make it so.
Bob Ebersole


The septic laws are apparently meant for water quality protection but the fact remains that these regulatory laws do very little to actually stop water pollution (whether ground, surface or estuary). The moment one urinates and/or defecates in a water flush toilet you are making a very personal contribution to water pollution woes and all the septic regulatory laws on the books as is are not altering this tragic effect.

By not peeing & pooping in a water flush toilet but instead capturing and adding humanure to a well built and maintained compost pile one no longer pollutes ground water aquifers, or otherwise causing run-off pollution because a good compost pile is like a huge sponge -- it can absorb and hold a tremendous amount of water without any run-off (barring of course flood conditions).

I imagine that Galveston homes once provided for their own water with their own wells and cesspools for their septic waste, but one day discovered that their water wells were becoming tainted with their septic wastes leaching into their ground water aquifer and even the bay. The mop & bucket solution was then to provide for city wide water as well as sewer lines and sewage treatment facilities.

Bob, what do you think happens to this water after sewage treatment and the de-watered sludge? I think I know but for your own edification you might want to visit your own sewage treatment plant and ask some questions. Among them I would encourage you to enquire of the treatment process, how it works and what chemicals they use anywhere along the treatment process; also where does the treated water go afterwards (re-injected in the ground?) and where the de-watered sludge goes (this last one could carry you far afield of Galveston). What tests do they run on their treated water and can you see the results? The test results will fall within their regulatory limits but it is by no means pure water and the test results will show this.

Of your public water supply I imagine it is treated with chlorine. You do know that chlorine is a potent poison? But the regulatory laws meant to ensure your water quality require it. Such laws may be fit for regulatory purposes but IMHO adding poison to one's water supply does not enhance its water quality. If you want good water of pure and untainted quality now a daze that more often than not comes in plastic jugs one buys at the store (although I would not recommend anything that isn't from a spring or distilled -- forget about Desani.)

So, Bob, once you've really looked into this regulatory mop & bucket boondoggle of *water quality protection* and then care to truly "oppose any activity that adds to pollution in general", you too will soon be making compost in your backyard and adding your very own humanure to it. Perhaps then you'll understand the virtue of such a personal endeavor of responsibility and will know better to extoll it rather than foolishly rebuke it.

So you're saying that it's mainly untreated animal waste from people's pets running off into groundwater supplies that pollutes the water in your area... this seems to be an apples and oranges situtation then. On the one hand, we have untreated, unmanaged fecal coliform bacteria from dogs and wild birds contaminating the groundwater.. surely a problem, but one that doesn't really relate to carefully composted material. And on the other hand, we have maybe a handful of people, 0.00001% of the US population, dealing with their "leavings" in a way that, if done properly, dramatically reduces the presence of harmful bacteria present, improves soil quality, and provides a long-term alternative to energy-intensive, costly, and ultimately environmentally destructive sewage treatment systems. The four main sources of coliform in groundwater are:
1- leaky septic tanks or overflowing combined sewers,
2- pets,
3- birds, and
4- poor agricultural practices, such as letting livestock graze near bodies of water.

These all share one common feature: untreated, "naked" manure, if you will. This is a completely different set of circumstances than a carefully managed compost pile. The infinitesimally tiny chance of general pollution from manure recycling is far outweighed by the benefit of reducing participation in municipal treatment systems that are known to, for instance, dump 1.2 billion tons of chlorine into our streams, lakes, rivers and oceans each year, along with the 2.3 million tons of toilet paper produced by paper mills that are themselves sources of fecal coliform.

So, from a pollution standpoint, I'm not saying mine doesn't count. I'm just saying it counts for a helluva lot less than the alternative.

And yeah, it takes much work to make soil.

Yeah, no joke. Everyone who is interested in sustainability should compost. Not because it reduces your personal footprint (though it does, minutely) but because you learn things about the natural processes of decay and renewal that have been largely forgotten in our culture.

Take Freeman Dyson for example. He recently wrote an essay denying the urgency (but not the reality) of climate change, which included this asnine suggstion:

It is at least a possibility to be seriously considered, that China could become rich by burning coal, while the United States could become environmentally virtuous by accumulating topsoil, with transport of carbon from mine in China to soil in America provided free of charge by the atmosphere, and the inventory of carbon in the atmosphere remaining constant.

I appreciate the fact that he is looking for positive responses and alternatives to doom and gloom. But this suggestion is clearly coming from someone who has no personal experience with soil or the building thereof: it's very hard to do on a large scale without enormous inputs. The fact that it is also a totally undervalued commodity (reflected in the fact that our ag system wastes it like mad) also means that his suggestion is utterly impractical on an economic basis.

Grey Zone,

Earthworms are wonderful critters. Their castings are very valuable as organic fertiliser, and the excess worms that you breed are easy to sell as bait or use as chicken feed. Its a business that post crash survivalists should consider for regular income, plus they are great to compost leaves, grass cuttings, kitchen waste or even newspapers and cardboard. Since worms don't require sunlight, they are great for areas that are too low light to grow vegetables. a simple worm bed can be built with scrap lumber and screen wire.

Worm castings sell for as much as $6.95 a lb. They're perfect to use with potting soil to set up container gardens, and cut regular fetilizer quantities by as much as 75%.

Some good sites to check out worms amd worm castings are: which has books for sale

or just look up earthworm castings on yahoo or google

Bob Ebersole

Earth worms are nice...

We raised a pig this year almost entirely from the table scraps, left over's, and fridge refuse from a family of 4, and the dung produced by the pig will make its way into our garden, and the pig has found his way into our freezer. Our goats do the same for our weeds and grass clippings...

This is the one I own - great value

Dirt by David R. Montgomery needs to be read by TODders. He might have called it Peak Soil.

Meat and dairy can also be added to an active, "hot" compost system. Run the meat through a blender to aid decomposition.

Do not attempt with a passive system, or it will stink like, well, rotting meat and dairy.

Even if it doesn't stink, it attracts rats.

My parents tried composting for awhile, but they made the mistake of including meat scraps. It didn't smell (my dad threw soil on top), but boy, was it a rat buffet. They were were rushing to chow down even in broad daylight.

So they gave up composting.

Put the rats in a blender and add to the compost pile. :)

My grandparents and second cousins in upstate NY composted with blended meat, I remember no problems with rats. They also had a few cats, however.

Put the rats in a blender and add to the compost pile.

That's OK. Don't bother.
I get the feeling I wouldn't like your GP and cousins.

Rodney DangerRat

Educational Gardens and Recycling
At Laytonville Unified School, California students in grades K-8 have organized and managed a recycling, composting, and gardening program since 1987. The gardens are fertilized by compost made from cafeteria wastes. Vegetables, fruits and bread make compost for the garden; protein waste goes into a "pig bucket" for a local farmer's hogs; milk cartons are recycled; and paper bags are shredded for mulch or worm food in the garden's worm culture beds. Within 10 months, 14,181 lbs. of materials was recycled. Food grown in the garden is sold to the school lunch program, donated to the community, and sold at the Middle School Market.
Educational Gardens & Recycling
150 Ramsey Road
P.O. Box 325
Laytonville, CA 95454

Todd...were you part of this project?


No, I wasn't. Binae Pane (sp) was the one who deserves the credit.



I've never found a clear definition of what constitutes a "hot" or "active" system versus a passive system for composting. From reading, I've assumed that it is a composting system with active biological agents that due to their actions can keep the compost pile above a certain temperature but I've never seen a clear definition. The closest I've seen is a description where the compost goes through a thermophilic stage of 45-65 degrees Centigrade. And the earthworms can do that so I've always thought those were active systems.

But if you've got any clear definitions or references to the difference between active and passive systems that make the matter clearer, I'd appreciate them!

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." -- Dr. Albert Bartlett
Into the Grey Zone

In my thinking, you've got three broad categories of composting systems:
1) Slow moldering (what people have been referring to here as "passive"): the simplest form is a pile of organic matter that just sits there and rots. Temperatures never get very high, and whatever worm activity there is, is just what naturally occurs (if the pile is sitting on soil).
This is the easiest type of composting to do, but does not deal with meat or dairy, and doesn't kill weed seeds or deactivate herbicides. You don't even need to turn the pile often, if you don't care about speed, although it's a good idea to do so occasionally, to disrupt the rodents that may otherwise nest in the pile.

2) Hot composting: This requires that the pile be large enough to retain heat, and have roughly the right mixture of high carbon to high nitrogen (about 50:1 by volume) materials to support a community of thermophilic bacteria. I've got some references at home that cite a particular target temperature for this kind of composting. From memory, it's about 160F, which is in line with the numbers you cited.
This system is much faster and can produce better compost than a slow moldering pile, but requires more work and attention. The pile will need to be turned, to make sure that the stuff on the outside gets inside, to be heated up, and to keep the thermophiles going. It needs to have the right moisture level (like wrung sponge; it should steam from the heat when turned). It needs to have the right mixture of high-N and high-C materials. And it works better in my experience if you collect a bunch of material and build the pile all at once. If you just keep throwing stuff on top as it's generated (e.g. food scraps) you don't get the material ratio you want, and the pile never gets big enough to really heat up.

3) Worm composting: This is also an "active" system in that it requires attention and maintenance, but it's very different from a thermophilic pile. Hot pile temperatures will kill worms (or drive them to the edges of the pile) so it's one or the other, but not really both.
Worm composting can make very high quality compost -- really, worm castings, which have a high nutrient value and great soil-structure qualities -- but it can be alot more work. Worms won't eat just anything, so if you want high quality finished products, avoid putting in things that are woody, and chop up things that are large (esp. fruit with skins). You also have to make sure the composter doesn't get too hot or too cold, as that will slow down or kill the worms. There's lots of books out there on worm composting. Many of them, in my experience, make it sound easier than it is. But on the other hand, I am trying to make really high quality (i.e. pure, without debris) worm castings, so I'm probably being pickier than is strictly necessary.

A word about compost quality: Many people think of compost as a high-nitrogen fertilizer. For the most part, it's not. Unless it is made with worms, or very carefully in a hot pile, most of the nitrogen in the feedstock materials will turn to ammonia and float away, or leach out, by the time the compost is done.
However, what compost is very good for (even stuff made sloppily) is adding biologically active organic matter to the soil. And the role of organic matter in soil fertility is badly underappreciated. (See Sir Albert Howard's comments on the NPK religion.) High organic matter content soils can support more microbial and fungal life, which form symbiotic relationships with plants that are only beginning to be understood. Organic matter also creates tilth -- good soil structure -- which allows the soil to hold on to nutrients more effectively and lets those fertilizers you do apply be more effective.

I've never found a clear definition of what constitutes a "hot" or "active" system versus a passive system for composting. ...

When I moved from my old house in Denton, I sort of found out. Although I'm an indifferent gardener, I tend to hoard organic matter and pile it in the corners of the back yard (my dad always had a compost heap, and graddad used to subscribe to all those Rodale publications although his neighbors probably thought they showed communist leanings) Anyhoo, I had to get out of the house and had this heap in back, with tree trimmings, miscellaneous kitchen scraps, grass clippings, dog poop and whatnot.

Since it's dry in Texas and I hadn't watered it regularly it was essentially just a big dry brush pile. I trundled down to Sears and got a chipper/shredder, a device I'd wanted for some time. Once I raked the shredded pile up, it was about 4 feet deep and 8 feet in diameter.

I started soaking it once or twice a day and turning it every other day or so (more work than I was really used to). It was amazing, pretty soon there was steam coming out of the thing; after sitting dry and dormant for years, it was alliiiiive! In a matter of just a couple weeks, it was reduced to about half its volume. The dog poop odor was soon replaced by a lovely mushroomy aroma.

Building an active compost heap is sort of like building a fire -- you need the source matter to be in close proximity, but with access to air. Unlike a fire, it also needs water, and quite a lot of it since it's generating low grade steam 24 hours a day. If it dries out, the process just grinds to a halt until you water it again.

I probably didn't let the composting process run long enough by "professional" compost standards, but they were going to start showing the house to people, so I raked the pile out over the whole back yard before leaving -- it added about an inch or so to the level. Nothing had to be hauled to the dump, although I did burn some fossil fuel in the chipper.

Thanks for posting that, Robert. That's a good use of hydrocarbon-based polymers in your picture up top. :)

The problem will solve itself.
But not in a nice way.

Chickens are an important part of our permaculture. They eat almost everything. All kitchen scraps go to the chickens (they also cruise and eat bugs and weeds) All garden waste goes in the compost along with layers of chicken manure. That way we don't have to contend with rats in the compost pile.

We also add shredded paper. I spoke to the janitor at work today and asked him to put shredded paper from the various departments in my office. The worms are very fond of it.

In my experience, rodents will nest in a compost pile even if there's not much there for them to eat. Fortunately, our composter is right next to the chicken yard, so when we turn the compost and disrupt the rodents, they tend to run into the chicken yard. No more rodent, happy chickens. :)

I've briefly looked through some websites and forums dealing with the issue of fire ants in compost piles. Is there anyone here with experience in keeping those ants out? The Hill country has a helluva problem with these things.

(I've heard different takes everywhere from diatomaceous earth to dried molasses to just turning it more often.)

Ants don't like wet, can be killed with borax, won't cross (water, oil, whatever toxin) so many of the treatments others claim deal with these options.

I have success with sugar+borax or fat+borax. I've used diatomaceous earth barriers and watched the ants bite themselves (light dusting over established trail for most ant dead) and placing the bins so that the supports are in water or biodiesel works.

For Fire-ants: I've read that nematodes work. Also a certain type of orange-based product works... I didn't note the name, but remember that some university down-South has been experimentally controlling fire-ants using regular store-bought oranges.
Look up Mike McGrath on "You Bet Your Garden" website. I heard about the citrus based approach on his radio show.

The product you want is Orange Guard. It kills on contact, but it doesn't kill the nest. It also destroys the ant's chemical trails.

There is a county agricultural agent, part of the USDA program who will have info on fire ant control in compost heaps.. Check with the County Judge's office for the address, many times it is in the County Court House.
Every county in the US has a county agent.

In smaller population counties they often combine several counties for one agricultural agent. They have lots of useful info besides pest control.Things like inexpensive arial photographs of your land, descriptions of the soil types, state labs where you can get cheap soil analyses, free rat poison, recommendations on fruit and nut varieties that produce best in your county and even free pamplets on building compost heaps. They are a relic of the New deal and supposed to help small farmers
In Bob Ebersole

I have posted this idea before, but since we have a dedicated composting thread I'll repeat it here.

If you are using open bins for composting (instead of an enclosed unit like RR's illustration), then try building a bat house directly above. That way the bat droppings can go straight into your compost, and enrich it tremendously.

You can probably still rig up a fold-up lid with hardware cloth for the top of your compost bin; the bat droppings should just fall right through. The screen lid will help keep rodent problems to a minimum.

Make sure that the bat house is located high enough above the compost bin so that you won't be banging it with tools, etc., and so that you're out of their flight path in case you are messing around there right when they are leaving or returning. Make sure that the supports are really sturdy, too.

Bats are good critters that will reward you with considerably reduced insect populations in addition to the increased fertility for your garden. Their habitat has been declining, this will help them out.

Just do a search for "bat houses" or "bat boxes", there are lots of free plans on the internet.

Yes, but...

Rain can leach the 'goodies' out of your compost. A covered pile will both eliminate rainfall leaching and hold in heat.

Perhaps you should put your bat house over your garden and take advantage of direct deposit.


BTW, as concerns size reduction of the pile. I have unloaded two pickup loads of stable sweepings (horse manure, wood shavings and spoiled hay) at one of my gardens. Watered them down well, and covered with plastic.

They now are the size of about 1/3rd a pickup load and have further to go.

Consideration of using human waste for recycling and building of soils is overdue.

This links to a how-to book on composting "humanure."

Composting with worms:

Brian (who used to have The Burrow)
Figured out the 'best' worm composing would be if you controlled humidity and made sure you could keep the mixture aerobic. Hence the 6-8 inch depth Worm Gin design.
(background here)
Visit: for all kinds of vermi-composting info. Just beware of 'scams'

Composting in general:
The pictures at the top of this article show me an anaerobic compost pile. These people do a fine job of explaining anaerobic VS aerobic:

And if one wants an aerobic compost treatment - none better than Jerry's jetcompost He can set ya up with models that can compost sheep.

Worm swags, OSCARS, and any of the other schemes - the best I've used is the gin design. Most costly to set up also.

Just because technical-minded people (and I am one) often make subjects more complicated than they need to be, I'd just like to point out that composting is really quite simple: Throw compostable items, possibly mixed with high-carbon organic matter (fallen leaves, sawdust, paper, straw, rice-hulls, etc.) to balance nitrogen-content or just to encourage aeration, into a pile of sufficient volume, and wait until done. You can do a lot more than this (fancy bins, fluffing the compost, etc.), but it isn't strictly necessary.

I've taking composting fairly seriously for a few years and my experiences include composting all the things that are forbidden for no good reason, as well as worm-composting. Currently, I add about 15 gallons of compostables to a 600 gallon bin each week. This regimen makes for a pile that generates enough heat that nothing seems to bother it. (Although mice nest in the straw that lies on the periphery of the bin over the winter.) A big round bale of straw, coffee grounds from my work-place (about 2-gallons a work-day), the household kitchen waste, and Jenkins' book are the primary sources of compostables.

Hot composting is desireable because it gives you greater freedom with your feedstock. To achieve it all one needs is a bin with a capacity of about a cubic yard (four pallets work nicely), 5-gallons worth of compostables a week, and a pile of carbon-rich organic material to balance any nitrogen-rich material but also to cover and/or insulate the pile when necessary. In arid climates, there may also be a need to moisten the pile occasionally.

With the exception of spent malt from home-brewing and bedding from my flock of ducks (in both cases the problem was more one of the volume of the stuff rather than the stuff itself) smell has never been an issue. The two times it became an issue the solution was just to pile on moist leaves or straw (which acts as a sort of bio-filter). With the duck bedding (there was an awful lot) a two-foot layer of straw was required before I could talk to my neighbours without blushing.

And if you don't have a garden (if you have a yard, you really should have a garden) for the finished product, lawns love it.

If people are hesitant to compost because of the first step, getting it out to the bin.. we use a small Lunch-Cooler under the sink to store scraps in. Waterproof, good lid is smell-proof enough just with gravity holding it down, and it takes maybe 3 days to fill up if you're doing a fair amount of veggie chopping, etc.

Our garbage bags ( $$ City bags here in Portland !!), take some 2 weeks to fill with a family of 3, and are dry and sweet-smelling.

Meat-waste and packaging goes into the freezer in a baggie until garbage is ready to go out. Cuts down on smell AND critters tearing up the garbage bags on the street.

Hey folks.

I'm a long-time organic gardener and teacher of sustainable gardening. I've been doing this since the 70's, with some success (he said, munching on a just-pulled very sweet carrot).

What I seem to see in many discussions of gardening and composting and the like is a tendency to fidget and micro-manage - in short, to attempt to engineer the process. Gotta DO SOMETHING!

You know those "there are 2 kinds of people" things?... well, IMO, there are "engineers" and there are "ecologists". Well, gardening is not an engineering problem.

I just want to emphasize that you don't need to buy plastic composting bins, nor chase down exotic yeasts and enzymes and starter cultures. You don't need to make compost, you simply allow it.

If you feel a need to build and tinker and tweak, there are many books and articles with plans for composting bins and the like. But with minimal attention to ratios of brown to green and moisture, it will happen. And there are many good books and articles about that, as well.

I guess I'm just saying to make a place to pile up your kitchen waste, weeds, etc. It will turn into compost. If you want to obsess about cultures, enzymes and yeasts and such, no problem. Please just don't think you need to. Just chuck a few handfuls of living soil onto your pile from time to time, if you feel that sort of need. Or take your garden fork and turn over your pile - that's a useful thing from time to time, and will dissipate excess energy - yours, that is :-)

Save your energy for weeding, and even more, for harvesting. When you have a good harvest, what are you going to do with all that stuff? I know it may sound funny, but to me, harvest time is the most challenging time of all - it comes on like a flood. Indeed, as I write this, I've got yet more tomatoes and beans and cucumbers that need to be picked, but I'm just backed up with canning and freezing and giving away and what all. But I really don't like to waste anything.

But if something slips through the cracks, guess where it goes? You got it - right onto the compost pile! Compost is good!

- S

Well, gardening is not an engineering problem.

Sure it is :)

FWIW the bin system I settled on is PVC pipe, 1/2" plastic netting, and zip ties. OK, shoot me for using polymers. Get corner fittings with a 3rd, threaded branch and a thread-to-socket fitting. Cut to length (3 x 3 x 3), fit up the corner fittings (no need for glue), and build the 'cube'. Zip tie 9' of netting around 3 sides, trimming excess. Turn upright, with open side facing. Zip tie another piece of netting (trimmed to 3' width) to the bottom of the opening; this is the front flap. You can zip tie the front flap all the way up, but I've found it useful to only tie the flap up to the current height of the pile. Makes turning the pile easier.

Very light and easy to place / move. $20 - $25. 30 minutes. badda bing.

Getting to 160 deg in NW Fla is a cinch.


What do you think of adding rock phosphate, greensand, and vermiculite to the pile on the first turn?

How much coffee grounds is too much?

"Sure it is :)"

Only if you want it to be - whatever floats your boat! If you like fiddling around with all that stuff, that is not my business, and more power to you! - I was just trying to remind folks that it is not necessary. Personally, I don't do plastic - I don't think it's good for you :-)

As far as additions of this and that, it very much depends on the native mineral composition of your soil. In any case, a little goes a long way. It's all about your soil ecology - you don't want to shock the system. Whatever you want to do, at least ease into it.

As far as coffee grounds... let's just say we drink too much coffee around here. Coffee grounds are acidic, but if you "dilute" them with plenty of other stuff, it's just another source of cellulose.

Happy gardening!

I would tend to say that gardening can (and should) be a design problem, but not an engineering problem. This is a distinction that is oftentimes lost in our tendency to throw technology, labor, or energy at a problem which would better solved with lots of observation, some careful thought, and then a bare minimum of applied effort. That's the permaculture way, at least as I see it.

We've been very successfully applying these principles in our garden. My real hope, though, is to be able to apply these principles in my profession, which is buildings engineering. Buildings contain way too much technology, and way too little thinking.

A nice distinction indeed, GreenEngineer.

As far as gardening goes, there's plenty to "do" without frittering away one's time on trying to force things to grow beyond their means, as it were.

It takes time to understand one's patch. And it takes time to bring it into sustainable production. You can't expect miracles on year one. Compost is good, but good soil is a composting machine anyway.

It's about the soil, and it's about the ecosystem.

Good inputs, Sgage.

Thought I'd mention a compost story here. Our neighborhood community garden has a compost/weedpile that was not getting broken down too well, and my mom just planted some squash seeds in it. At the end of the season last year, there was extra squash for everyone, and the root system had helped finish up the composting!

We just bought some woodland with my mom, and there's a similar trick for dealing with old treestumps, instead of poisoning the ground with explosives, poisons or renting a stumpgrinder.. you plant potatoes on and all around the stump (I guess with a healhty pile of mulch..) and you get food AND a composted treestump!

In case there are some engineers taking umbrage at the above distinction, here is an engineer's approach to generating soil, Methane, heat and work from some originally unproductive French scrubland. I've posted it before, but it bears repeating on this thread.
Jean Pain: France's King of Green Gold
"Pain has wrought: an amazingly simple, and incredibly inexpensive system that extracts both energy and fertilizer (gold) from plant life (green)."

Bob Fiske

jokul, that technique works great here in the tropics. Soil in the tropics will not accumulate organic material, so the choices are chemical fertilizers, terra preta, or growing things right on the compost pile. In my experience, papayas in particular love growing in/under a compost pile, which provides nutrients, retains moisture, and keeps the soil cool. I just dump kitchen waste around them and cover it with yard waste from the neighbors (this is suburbia). The racoons and possums dig around in it for a while, but I view that as free "turning". Everybody is happy : )

Errol in Miami

Same idea here, but with banana trees. I made a pit, directed the shower drain pipe from the house into the pit, threw in some organic matter, then planted a few baby banana trees around the edge of the pit. This is a permaculture classic called a "banana circle." Anyway, I toss my kitchen scraps in the middle and the banana trees munch them up and drink the shower water. Then the massive banana leaves catch dew and drip in down onto the compost pile, and if they ever drop dry leaves those will drop onto the pile as well. Sometimes my neighbor's chickens come over and have a good scratch at the straw and kitchen scraps there, mixing everything up, eating fly larvae and leaving some manure.
The banana trees are growing around 1/2 meter a week. And we live in a desert with 7 inches of rain per year, only in the winter. I would have tried some more desert trees there, but it happens that my kids simply love bananas so this is what I made for them to see how garbage and shower water can produce food they love.
Now as to all the discussion about building soil, I agree it is worthwhile to catch and recycle the energy and nutrients in the "waste" of every sort that comes out of our homes and yards. But instead of using it to arduously build soil and grow vegetables, I suggest looking carefully to find trees and perennial plants that will yield a lot of food or other useful items from the soil, water, terrain, and climate that are already present. Find trees that will thrive without care. Some of the most useful trees, such as neem, can be used at home for medicine and also used as a cash crop. Why is this important? You all know about EROEI. The EROEI of a tree is many times that of a typical garden vegetable. First you plant a tree, once, in your existing soil. Then it grows very big--on its own. Many trees have acres of leaf surface area for photosynthesis, and the product volume and calories they can produce from all that captured solar energy is far greater than the calories produced from the leaf surface of a typical vegetable that takes annual planting, weeding, fertilizing, etc.
There is even a diesel tree whose sap can be directed right to the diesel gas tank--but I digress....

I agree this is a design problem, and the main challenge is to find a harmonious way to work with nature by arranging a self-perpetuating ecosystem.

Thanks, Robert. I ordered a compost bin, turner and thermometer the other day over the internet and it just arrived while I was reading your article (how neat is that!) I have a passive compost heap that was basically going nowhere, but want to start an active one.

I've been lucky with my garden so far. I live in a 107 year old house in a "poorer" part of town that probably has ner seen a chemical in its hundred years. So when I dug my first garden there were hundreds of earthworms already. I get a salad garden worth of edible weeds in spring before my lettuce and radishes even have time to get started. Plus a big old poke bush for poke salat (yum!)that comes up every spring. So all I've had to do is give mother nature a little help with some organic compost and organic fertilizer. With my own compost pile, I shouldn't have to pay for compost for much longer. I think its sudh a goo idea whether TSHTF or not.

I have only about a 10' x 10' garden, but this year produced enough that after eating from it all summmer and giving some away to neighbors, I had to buy a little 5.7 cu.ft. freezer to hold all the stuff I wanted to save for this winter.

Which brings me back to your article and the importance of building/saving our topsoil. Keep up the good work.


It seems the task ahead is to apply home gardening and organic techniques to mass food production. Even with intensive monoculture and GMOs the EROEI of mass food production is said to be about 0.1, which is the calorific value of food as a fraction of energy inputs. To step up on-farm use of compost might require equipment similar to manure recycling on dairy farms. For example muck spreaders which are driven by big tractors and loaded by bobcat from a giant compost heap. The tractors will need to be 100hp/75kw machines that run 4 hours on a tank of diesel, not puny battery tractors. This is supposedly to get away from synthetic fertilisers post peak. Can large scale farming possibly be done without fossil fuels?

A related issue is whether charcoal should be mixed straight into compost or spread onto soil as a separate task, or perhaps plowed in. I experimented with spraying a 2 millimetre charcoal slurry via a fire fighting pump on the back of a pickup. Not so good so I ended up shovelling the charcoal out of a wheel barrow. I now have a few acres with 100 grams of charcoal per square metre, 10% of the recommended amount. It’s too early to say what the effect is.

Let me mention that TOD has a nation-wide, indeed world-wide readership, and that the needs of the soil are extremely local.

I live in New Hampshire, USA, with a sandy soil tending to acid, but cold enough such that organic matter accumulates nicely. I have absolutely no need for charcoal.

Again, as a very experienced gardener, if I was pressed for advice I would say your best bet would be to find a successful gardener where you live! Gardening is quite local - not just soils, but climate and varieties and such.

Which isn't to say we can't share and get ideas from here and there or anywhere. But even in NH, soils change from meter to meter! (Thank you, Mr. Glacier!). You really need to experiment. One size does not fit all.

In the end, if you take the time to understand your piece of land, YOU will be THE expert... seriously!

- S

I can't believe that I almost forgot to say this, but the best composter in the world for vegetable scraps and (many, not all) fresh plant debris is....


Bunnies are a great meat source: you can raise them in your backyard, they're easy to slaughter and dress, and oh so tasty. But they're almost worth keeping just for their manure. Bunny poop is the best planting medium I have ever encountered. It's dry, nonstinky, easy to work with, and plants LOVE it.

Unlike most manures, it's not "hot" (i.e. high available nitrogen), so you can plant in it directly, without further composting. (It has lots of nitrogen, but it's not all available at once, so it won't burn your plants, but it will feed them for a long period of time.) Bunnies love all kinds of greenery and vegetable scraps, and they turn them into compost essentially instantly. There are some things they won't eat (solanacea, notably), but they love flowers (especially roses), fruit-tree wood, cane berries (even the woody stalks) and most vegetables (avoid high starch stuff). Also, at $13 for a 50-lb bag, their chow is cheaper by mass than good garden soil, and you can generally figure that 90% of what goes in one end will come out the other.

We used to raise rabbits when I was a kid. I had teacher in the 7th grade who used to come by from time to time and take our rabbit poop for his garden. This was back in the 60's. It really is good hooch!

Horse manure is awesome, too. Doesn't smell bad, not too hot, composts beautifully, etc. I have a big horse - I use about 1 week's worth of her output per year in my own operation. Many neighbors avail themselves of her "horse exhaust", as I call it.

Yes, with a couple of horses we generate quite a lot - right now it gets spread on our fields daily with a small spreader. However, I'm thinking it would be better to pile it so it can compost for a while (my wife does not like this idea!). I could add the goat and chicken bedding. I plan to begin gardening in earnest next year, and I'll be starting a compost pile as well (thanks Robert, this article is just the push I needed). Do you think I should try to combine the two? The manure pile will of course be much larger.

A lot of good gardening tips from everyone. Thanks. I started a real garden this year,
400sq ft. I have cleared another 300 sq ft for next year. I have chickens and turkeys, lots of manure. Many mistakes made this year, even after reading many gardening books. It has been fun and my family is starting to understand the predicament we all are in with resources and over population. We have canned and froze our veggies as a family, not to much bitching from my daughters. Tip: Don’t dig up shrubs around the porch and plant blueberries without telling wife first!

Welcome to the gardening club! Enjoy your new obsession (OK, maybe it won't get you the way it got me...).

Allow me to recommend my favorite gardening book: Gaia's Garden which illustrates permaculture techniques adapted for the home gardener.


While this thread has largely run its course, I wanted to thank you for posting the main article. Many articles here are very technical and don't hit home (at least yet, thankfully) but this article along with its comments has been very educational, even for someone who already was composting.

Thanks again!

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." -- Dr. Albert Bartlett
Into the Grey Zone

Hello there,

I've been reading through the posts on this site over the past few weeks ... this is the first time I've felt I had anything to add on any of the subjects.

Is anyone familiar with the concept of Biointensive Gardening? I've just been reading up on it and it looks like a good way to grow a lot of produce in a relatively small amount of space. It looks fairly promising ...


i had some plots at the Xerox PARC community garden when John was beginning his research work. He later moved up to Willits, where he started another mini-farm.
I believe he is working with Jason Bradford, but I'm not sure.

Did you use biointensive methods? And if so, did you get the kind of results indicated? The book (I got the latest edition of How To Grow More Vegetables) suggests 100 sq ft using biointensive method will yield the same as 400 sq ft using the usual row method - with less effort needed (no/reduced weeding).

This is also quite similar to Square Foot Gardening ....Mel Bartholomew's method


I've been using beds rather than row gardening for several years. Sort of the biointensive/square foot gardening approach.

The advantages that I find are that:

1)The vegetables get grow in less compacted soil. I well remember how our packed our pathways were at the end of a Tennessee summer. Roots must not have enjoyed living under there.

2) Weeding is a lot easier. Once the plants are up they tend to shade out newly emerging weeds. And I 'mulch' between my beds with discarded/tear-out carpet. I place the carpet one or two layers thick, upside down. Then I cover the carpet with a thick layer of wood chips (free from the tree trimmers).

I just don't have problems with invasive weeds such as grasses that spread via runners. Weeds that do spring up in the pathways are easily wiped out with a quick pass of a hoe. They can't get their tap roots through the carpet.

The carpet, saved from the land fill, lasts "forever" as it isn't exposed to sunlight. And those synthetics just seem not to rot.

After a couple of years the wood chips are nicely composted. I scoop them up, add them to my beds, and throw down a fresh layer.

Even in the nastiest weather walking through the garden is like walking in the woods.

3) Not as much water is needed. There is little bare land to loose water. The garden soil is shaded by the vegetables. The pathways are under a nice carpet/chips mulch. And it's a lot easier to get the water on a bed than on a row.

4) Working the soil (after the beds are established) is a breeze. I defy anyone to dig a significant hole in the ground with hand tools, including a pick, around here in the late summer. But you can easily dig a hole in one of my beds with your bare hands.

Working in a fair amount of compost makes the soil very soft and not at all "muddy" when wet. I seldom use even a hand trowel when planting. Stick in a finger for a pea hole. Drag a finger for a beet row.

I have no use for my tiller which sits covered with a tarp. (And I really recall the hours of bouncing behind the tiller when we row gardened.)

Bob about number 2, a variation on that, to keep the ground from compacting on paths between beds and keep weeds down, is to use a thick pea gravel mulch, this allow water to trickle down and for the few weeds a quick blast of a propane torch keeps them in line. I also use a heavier rock mulch under my fruit trees.

BTW, I have been strapped trying to figure out what to use my tiller for, it is geared too low for an outboard motor unless I swing a 3ft prop on my 14ft canoe:)

Pea gravel mulch works just fine too. It's that I would have to pay for gravel and can get old carpet and chips for free.

Plus chips are a lot easier to haul in the wheelbarrow. ;o)

That tiller? Would make a very substantial anchor for your canoe....

Yes, I used Jeavons' French Intensive Biodynamic; but not the biodynamic witchcraft part, which he wasn't using, either....burying cow skulls full of manure, or whatever.

I had 2 different experiences. The first were the community gardens in the Bay Area. I had 6 100 sq.ft. beds. I probably gave stuff away for canning, but was basically growing fresh produce, not trying for sustainabilty. 6 beds were more than enuf to keep me in vegies, along with my parents, my neighbors, eventually my SO and her 2 boys, and extra to give away. Because the weather was so favorable, I was able to get 2 or even 3 crops out of one space; timing beocmes important if you do that.

I don't use frames for the beds; just double dig the soil and raise it that way. Had several reasons. I'm lazy, a waste of resources and time, but John also talkled about how double digging would increase the oxygen in the soil, so I figured bare sides would work more effectively than wood barriers. Also never made compost bins. Just piles on the ground. I kept my paths in vegetation; either grass or the weeds which were around. Down there, I would cut and compost them. Up here, I used to feed the trimmings to the goats we had. About half their food was just waste from the garden, as well as some wheat I was playing around with.Down there, I was planting as many as 8 or 9 corn crops, 25 square feet, one every 2 weeks, all summer long. The season is not as long here.

When we moved up here, I was working about 45 beds (certified organic), to sell at the Farmers' Market.The crop mixed changed a lot, and there was no real attempt to grow all our own food. The 2 big changes were to start using a u-bar,
and I started using overhead sprinklers, cuz time was a factor, and water wasn't.

(mine is about twice the size of this).

Always tried to grow in 3 D. Pole beans, peas,and snow peas, trellised the cucumbers and melons, sometimes used corn stalks for bean poles to increase productivity. Cover cropped fava beans in the winter, sold some beans at the market.

Soil and yields improve with time.

"I don't use frames for the beds; just double dig the soil and raise it that way. Had several reasons. I'm lazy, a waste of resources and time, but John also talkled about how double digging would increase the oxygen in the soil, so I figured bare sides would work more effectively than wood barriers."

That's the Asia way. Decent sized beds, dug each year, no frames.

But I think using frames makes the job easier, long term. I "double dig" the first time. Which really means that I excavate my bed areas down 2+ feet and remove the rocks which make up the majority of my garden. I replace the rocks with decent soil, raw stable cleanings, and any other organic matter I can obtain.

After that I dig no more. Ever. Except to create a small planing hole.

Seems like there's some information about not disturbing the 'layers' of soil. Certain good bugs live at certain levels and turning can upset the balance of nature.

BTW, I'm moving from wood frames to poured concrete beds. I've drifted into my 6th decade and can see the future looming. I remember that my father had trouble gardening in his later years as it was too hard to get down at ground level for planting, weeding, and picking.

While I've still got some brute strength left in the old bod I'm going to be forming up some 4' x 8' beds that are about chair height and cap the edges with wood.

That way I can totter out to the garden with my walker or drive out in my three wheel, haul my tired old butt onto the bench edge, and garden away well into my dotage.

Do my granddaughter a favor and stick with wood.

Concrete is the most common construction material used in the world. Cement is the principal ingredient in concrete. Producing one tonne of cement results in the emission of approximately one tonne of CO2, created by fuel combustion and the calcination of raw materials. Cement manufacturing is a source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 7% to 8% of CO2 globally (1),

I had a paraplegic patient who raised his beds up to wheelchair height.

Actually, I'd suggest the "Flagg" method that Helen and Scott Nearing used for their houses whereby stones are placed in a form with "sticky cement" placed between the stones. See the book Living the Good Life.

I used 2x12 merch redwood because it was quick and cheap. After 25 years I'm sorry I didn't use mortared stone.

I'm also sorry I didn't use "industrial strength" mesh in the bottom of the beds. I used 1" galvanized aviary netting and it was a poor choice to keep the gophers out long term.


Excellent idea. I'm a long time fan of Helen and Scott and have often thought about building a slip form house. That technique should work well for beds.

Largest problem is that I have no good local rock. While I built on a fractured rock dome it's crappy sandstone and falls apart when exposed to the elements.

I've been hauling back volcanic stuff for dry stack walls when I go kayaking. Guess I'll have to force myself to spend more time on the water.... ;o)

And 'hardware cloth' on the bottom is something that I was going to do. Just forgot to mention. I've been raising beets, garlic, potatoes, carrots and other gopher candy in old junk tubs. Really would like to send that stuff off to recycling.

This is my favorite recent (2006) compost story: Cold Can't Stop Alaska Sewage Composting.

Hey Robert, Good on you, moving closer to the dark side.

One thing though, this being a oil heavy site, and tires being just a hop and skip from the well head, why no mention by anyone about using old tires to compost in? They work really well.

Have made a comment here about using them:

ComePost with us Robert:)

I used them for growing potatoes. Painted them white to keep them cooler. Put some mesh at the very bottom to keep out the gophers.

Paint em white to keep em cool, eh? Up here I was thinking of painting mine black to keep them warmer but they already were black so I was plumb out of luck there. This survival business is trickier than I thought.

Quite interesting thread here and I'm late towards being last with a couple of comments. Interesting to note that people who will tear up and eat elements of complex energy discussions also seem to have a real flair for organic gardening and are excited about sharing their own experiences. What a twist of sorts!

In tagging through these posts I kept looking for some basics to composting which I'll term as "natural, biological fermentation." Something quite similiar to batch processing of sugars converted by acidic enzymes and then consumed by yeasty bugs whose waste urine is dilute ethanol. What comes out the top of the fermentation tanks stack as ethanol is naturally fermented by yeasts? It is CO2 beer fizz carbonation, correct?

Stop and consider a minute. Robert's plastic recycling/compost bin has been full to the brim 10 times and keeps going down in a natural process of physical reduction. Mother nature's bugs and micro-organisms responsible for this physical reduction of organic matter are doing what? They are consuming nutrients and offgassing both CH4 methane and CO2 greenhouse gas. Combined, these two gasses are commonly termed as "bio-methane."

The natural processes of organic composting (fermentation) are all part of the ecosystem's cycle and offgas both methane and carbon dioxide. And we know that methane is about 20x more reactive in the global warming phenomena than is carbon dioxide. Just something to think about and realize as your kitchen scraps and toilet paper tubes become naturally composted into great new soil for integration into your vegetable garden plots.

Last: My father-in-law who composts 365 days a year in Denver where it gets cold in the winter buys a half-gallon jug of milk in the springtime. He sets this milk out in the warm sun for about a week for it to spoil and get very ripe. He then sprinkles this sour milk over his compost heap to "recharge it" with bacteria each spring which really speeds up the natural process once again of making his kitchen waste and grass clippings physically reduce and disappear instead into Denver's atmosphere as greenhouse gasses.

Still seeking the primordial ecosystems balance as most of your other folks are. Good day...

Gary Bridge

If pops is using aerobic composting to produce compost rather than buying commercial fertilizers, and as well, isn't having them buried to anaerobically produce even more methane than does aerobic I think he does yeomans service for the planet and possibly you should humbly go kiss his ring.

Thanks for the post. A good subject for all individuals to consider for the future.
In the meantime, how do we convince the PTB that the 'modern' farming methods of anaerobic manure handling should be treated as industrial waste, not farming?
I think that any farm that is big enough to be incorporated should be made to meet the same standards as other corporations for emissions.

As long as we're in the composting and gardening subjects, I recommend everyone go to and visit the bookstore. Something for everyone.

Buy less, buy local, compost your sh*t, dude...

The nearest large agi outfit to me is a large dairy and I buy the odd load of manure form them and it is pretty well composted by the time I get it from them. They do the simple thing of adding lots of carbon in the form of straw and wood shavings and turn it frequently (with a front end loader) to add oxygen. I have never been at or by that farm when it has stunk of methane, like so many. It's clean and looks pretty prosperous so I would say it is not out of the question to operate a large farm well. Though I do like the image of the small family farm with maybe a dozen head better.

The PTB? I guess maybe show there is money in (well composted) muck, what else would they understand?

BTW what about adding TRADE MORE to your catchphrase?

In Hong Kong they are apparently worm-composting urban garbage in a large scale, or at least attempting to do so. Here's a video news item, mostly in Norwegian (you all know that, don't you?), but with a part of the interview in English.