Garden Composting
a gathering of notes for turning garden waste into fertilizer
 [background details]



101129  Began pulling what printed notes I had out of my file cabinets.  One thing I really want to research, not answered in the literature I had, is whether shredded paper is a suitable addition to compost piles.  Providing the water indicated to be required for effective composting is going to be a problem.  So much of the literature on composting depends on "lawn clippings" as the primary input that it raises questions as to whether composting is relevant at all in a fescue free environment.  Yet more complicating is the effect of the ferocious desert winds on any compost pile, even enclosed within fencing or hardware cloth.  They would most likely result in components of the compost pile being picked up and blown around surrounding areas, as in fact they do whenever I have chopped weeds down without immediately raking the disconnected weeds up for disposition.
 

BACKGROUND DETAILS
      The purchase of additional land around my Little House in the Desert recorded on 101115 made a key change in my thinking about composting.  One of the reasons I had never gone into composting was the amount of space it would require to do any cost efficient version.  So the additional space available suggested to me it was time to do a thorough review of composting.  There had been other reasons along with lack of space.  I never have been a material producer of kitchen waste nor of garden waste until my first serious gardening efforts in 2010, after construction of my underground PVC irrigation system in 2009.  I am suspicious about the postured decomposition process because piles of deadwood ("twigs" referred to in the composting literature) formed by clearing woody plants many years ago from my land are every bit as solid (not decomposed) as they were when they were parts of living bushes.
      There have been trash barrels full of weeds coming out of my land for several years now, but those have always impressed me as entirely unsuitable components for creating a product intended to be spread around desirable plant life "as if" I didn't already have far too many aggressive weeds or that the composting process was going to kill the weed seeds when even RoundUp and other herbicides have had no reducing effect at all on the weeds themselves.  I remain skeptical that composting is capable of killing weed seeds and leery of a variety of commercial steer manure now mixed with compost which all but certainly consists of composted *weeds*.  The online guides on composting mention "Avoid weeds that have begun to go to seed, as seeds may survive all but the hottest compost piles. Some types of weeds are 'pernicious weeds' and will resprout in the compost pile."   Salsola tragus and the other weeds common in my desert environment certainly qualify as pernicious and show signs of seed formation virtually as soon as they have sprouted.  They not only survive but thrive in areas devoid of watering and subjected to months of regular daily temperatures in the range of 110F.  The weeds themselves, even when subjected to a 900F hot air blower barely begin to *wither* after minutes of such heat, subjected to the flame of a propane torch they only crinkle and eventually form a fringy glow as they decompose under direct flame.  These are not the sorts of things which are going to politely decompose under the moderate temperatures generated in a compost pile.  So the great bulk of my foliage waste remains unsuitable for composting.
      Basic Lingo of Composting.  "Compost" is a mixture of dead, decomposing organic material; "organic" has to do with living things, e.g. plants are organic; "decompose" to rot; "mulch" a protective covering of loose material, such as wood chips, that is spread on the ground.  A promoter of home composting says that compost is "dark brown, crumbly, and soil-like; made from things once living; a mix of decomposed brown and green materials; made with the help of decomposers; sweet or musty smelling; good for soil and plants; mixed with soil; used as mulch; a way of recycling; and [as if tedious physical labor was any such thing] fun to make."  Proposed formula for compost = greens + browns + air and water + decomposers.  "Greens" are such things as fresh grass clippings (fescue is prohibited from my land), fruit and veggie scraps, garden prunings, recently living plants.  "Browns" are such things as twigs, dead leaves, hay, paper napkins and towels.  "Decomposers" are small creatures like bacteria, worms, and beetles who facilitate the decomposition process.  "Condiments" for a compost pile include fireplace ashes, bone meal, and previously finished compost.    Keys to composting are mixing in some water, keeping the pile moist (like a damp sponge), and stirring the pile about once a week.  Some things that do not belong in a compost pile (bad smells, incapable of rotting, or attractive to pests) include fish scraps, plastic spoons, meat scraps, peanut butter (a favorite of ants).
      A Trouble Shooting guide addresses four common problems of composting.  "Bad odor", caused by not enough air or too much green material, mix the pile or add in more brown material.  "Composts too slowly", not enough water, moisten and mix the pile.  "Pile is damp and warm only in the center", pile is too small, collect more material and mix it into the pile.  "Pile is damp and sweet smelling but no heat", lack of green material, mix in more green material like fresh lawn clippings, yard trimmings, and weeds.
      Back Porch Compost Tumbler.  One of the commercial composting manufactures that I looked at was offered by ComposTumbler, 1834 Freedom Road, Lancaster PA 17601, tel 800-880-2345,  web site .  The original post card offer I received from them was downright silly when it said their small back porch version "never fills up".  Its volume is a third smaller than one of the trash barrels that I've been filling in a few hours each week, making sure to tamp it all down to smallest practical volume between wheelbarrow load additions, and leaving major amounts of weeds and/or garden waste to be gathered the following week.  The capacities of their three models were expressed in "gallons":  Back Porch 45 gallons (= 6 cubic feet, a volume slightly smaller than a cube 22 inches on each side), Compact 90 gallons (= 12 cubic feet), Original 180 gallons (= 24 cubic feet).  The serious drawback is in the "on sale" pricing:  Back Porch 239 + 31 S&H = $270, Compact 349 + 82 = $431, Original 429 + 99 = $528.  Gets about 20% worse if one were to buy at suggested list price.  They further require a "Compost Activator" sold in two pound bags for $11.49 (or maybe "free with purchase of a tumbler" one, two, or three bags of the "activator") to speed up decomposition which makes two in the Original, four in the Compact, or eight "batches" in the Back Porch tumbler.  They also suggest a Sifter Screen for $49 or a green vinyl adwierdteasing afflicted cover for $82, neither of which fit the small Back Porch tumbler.
      The key advantage which the manufacturer promotes is that open bins have smells that attract flies, mice, scavengers and other obnoxious critters whereas the closed bin design of their tumblers is "odor free".  They say that "open compost piles may be no fuss but you'll wait longer and actually get inferior compost ... because by the time compost is ready the best nutrients have leached into the ground underneath your compost pile."  They emphasize the effort involved in turning compost piles, especially with rolling type, oblong, or stationary composting equipment.  They argue that their equipment results in no work, no smells, no mess, and no piles.
      The cold stopper for me when I reviewed their literature was the capital cost in relation to the fact that I can buy quality steer manure, neatly bagged in one cubic foot quantities, certified weed free and already fine screened, for roughly $1 per cubic foot.  Preparing my intended Raspberry Patch for 2011 planting, for example, required two applications, several months apart, of 11 bags of the steer manure.  Preparing my larger Defined Garden Area for veggies first grown in 2010 required proportionately more.  But added altogether my existing uses for compost would take years before the original capital cost would be recovered.  Furthermore, the quality steer manure can be purchased as and when needed, not having to sit around waiting for use at some later date.