Composting: Give Nature a Prod

Collecting millennia of deposited phosphorous from ancient bird poo would be great fun, as would mining potash in Russian salt mines, but most of us who enjoy growing tomatoes, radishes, wonderfully scented roses, and maybe the odd outrageous Dutchman’s pipe just don’t have the resources of gardeners like Gina and Clive. So, we’re forced to feed our poor plants on our food scraps, nourish them with poo bought for $3 a bag from a farm stall, or with buried smelly bits of animal we don’t want to eat.

It’s not all awful living off the crumbs of societal waste though – sometimes it can even be quite fun. I take great pleasure in driving around collecting wood shavings, green waste and fish entrails in my Volvo station wagon, and feeding it to my plants after I’ve composted it for a while. You see, decay is about life, and we shouldn’t panic about peak this or that, because we live in a closed system and things will probably be okay. We might have to eat more seaweed when we wash all the planet’s phosphorous into the ocean, but the fish will be jumping even if the cotton isn’t high.

Before you email The Planthunter saying that “Hey, this heretic wanker is preaching environmental complacency! Compost him at the stake!” be aware that this is entirely possible, and is happening to corpses as I tap away at these keys. You see most things can go in your compost, but like your food, you should know what’s going into your heap and what the effects will be.

The principle of compost making is this:

The combination of things with mostly carbon in them, things with lots of nitrogen, plant matter, and water (but not too much) makes compost in time.

There are as many recipes for compost on the interweb as there are ants in your too-dry heap, and all of them can work. But you have to actually do it, learn what works for you, and adjust accordingly.

It’s no use getting told to collect leaves from deciduous trees if you live in a suburb with natives lining the streets. It’s no use getting seaweed if you live in Broken Hill, it’s no use composting your mother-in-law if you’re not married or if you like her. But, the sign at Broken Hill tip does show directions to the ‘meat hole’. When my friend informed me of this, I thought she was merely being crude and sexually inappropriate. But a photo confirmed that they actually do have a meat hole. It’s for dead animals. This is an outrageously wonderful composting resource – so much nitrogen and nutrients all in one spot. Every tree chipped in the town should be dumped in the meat hole, every bit of green waste. It could be controlled and made into a great big mound or ridge of compost.

Compost is about coercing nature – making it decay the way we want it to.

In lieu of having your very own meat hole, a compost bin is a wonderful way to reduce your waste and make something useful. One of those big black bottomless bins will do the trick; you can make one or ask your council for one and they should oblige because you are reducing their costs of rubbish removal. It has to go somewhere – see, the closed system again.

Do’s and dont’s are horrifically simplistic and patronising to the sophisticated readers of The Planthunter, so let’s call them causes and effects. Here are a few:

  1. If you put lots of water on you compost, it might not get enough air and it will start to smell like off citrus and bin juice, which is anaerobic rot. It’s possible to change the heap to aerobic decomposition (which is what you want) by turning, adding dry matter, and things with structure like little branches.
  2. You can put flesh in your compost – things will like to eat it. Some will be bacteria, some will be soldier fly maggots, some will be rats and cats and dogs. We’re told to not encourage the latter three, the others are wonderful at making composting happen. Something will decompose almost everything you put from your kitchen into the compost. Remember, the worms are not alone.
  3. You can put dog and cat poo in your compost, but if you use the compost on your vegetables and a parasite called toxoplasma gondii survives the composting process, and you’re pregnant, you run the risk of serious harm to your unborn child, or if you’re immunocompromised you could get sick yourself. It’s thought that up to one third of humans are infected with this parasite, probably less in Australia because we are clean living people with high moral standards. I would suggest composting pet poo separately for use on your prize camellias or burying it near your hydrangeas, just keep it clear of your swiss chard.
  4. If you compost using Eucalyptus leaves, decay will happen more slowly. Chemicals in the leaves make them undesirable food for the bacteria and little animals to munch. Same with Casuarina branchlets that we call leaves and camphor laurel.
  5. If you put weeds in your compost, you might get weeds growing from where you put it in the garden. Not really a surprise. If you are the ultimate composting human and make a beautiful hot compost, you might miraculously kill all the weed seeds and roots that would otherwise grow. Probably not though. But without weeds you’d get bored gardening.

On my imaginary farm on the South Coast of NSW, where I have planted an imaginary arboretum with trees for beauty and for timber, and where I grow imaginary wasabi and tea, this is how I compost…

A council truck brings all the chipped trees from the surrounding area and puts them in a big pile in a partly shaded paddock. I spread fungal spores through the chips, specific to the species of chipped tree. Over a season the mycelia have infiltrated through the chips and they have lots of little holes in them, becoming porous with a massive surface area. Beautiful fungal fruits pop up everywhere. Farmers bring me their dead cows and relatives, and I bury them in the woodchips which have been arranged into a long mound across the top of the paddock. The local purple haired president of the hydrangea society brings me masses of green waste – ‘Into the pile, Beryl!’ I yell. I turn the composting matter a few times over the next couple of months or so, making sure every bit is moist but not soaked so it can breath. I cover it all with long sheets of plastic made from non-GM corn starch that was excess to what the world could consume or make into biofuel and was never going to feed a cow because all cows are now grass fed, and was shipped to me on a solar powered ship.

One day, some of that will come true. While I wait for that time, I will nudge things in the direction of decay.

I hope I was able to effectively impart my thoughts on compost to you, loyal Planthunter reader, and that it was of use for your composting ventures, whether they be a matter of reducing your kale stalk foot print or solving the world’s resource crises.

Composting: Give nature a prod.