Getting composting so so wrong – end of the beginning

by Nathan Rutz

This season – not that productive

This season’s garden hasn’t been as productive as last year’s. There have been quite a few more weeds and my starts didn’t take off very well. The perennial plants seem to be doing fairly well though

strawberries – this year the strawberry hugulbed produced a crazy amount of growth of leaves and new plants and a decent crop of strawberries, and they choked out most weeds. I think I’ll need to rip many of them out and replace them after the next season to maintain fruit production

asparagus – these are planted in a hugulbed and continue to grow, I didn’t cut them at all this year

apricot tree – this tree has grown like crazy, I don’t know exactly why, but it’s doing nicely

hardy kiwi – all vines continue to mature

raspberries – original canes have grown and sprouted new ones – I need to learn how raspberry fruits actually grow, because it seems like it might not make sense to just let the canes keep growing, I know Aunt Judy who I got them from cuts them back every year

Hazelnut bushes – one of them still has leaves on it that are beautifully red now, the other lost its leaves early. The one that lost its leaves early is in my “compost” area…….

Learning online

I started listening to some podcasts from Permaculture Voices. It’s a decent show, I think the intros are WAY too long and uninformative but the interviews are good. One lecture in particular taken from a conference really stood out to me, by Dr. Elaine Ingham.

Dr. Ingham quickly and simply explains the soil food web. It rang of truth to me, so I looked up her work and more lectures and videos. After talking with my brother, I eventually decided to pay up for the pricey but quality online courses she offers.

I’m through the first in the series, the Life in the Soil class, now in the compost class.

For the last 2ish years I’ve been collecting coffee grounds from a few coffee shops and intending to compost them. In my mind, compost was to be a fertility amendment, that is a natural way to get nutrients into the garden. I’ve looked at quite a lot of carbon to nitrogen charts and have seen in many places that an ideal C:N ratio for compost piles is 30:1.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think a common assumption among gardeners and home composters and maybe even farmers is that we really need to worry about how much nitrogen we have, that we’re always on the low end of what we need.

So reading that coffee grounds are about 20:1 and paper (coffee filters) is somewhere between 120-400:1, and that both of these things are wet when you get them, I assumed coffee and filters from coffee shops came in essentially ideal ratios for composting. I was totally wrong.

Dr. Ingham explains that a nice home compost pile that won’t need to be turned all that much should be about 10% high nitrogen material (~10:1), 30% green plant material (~30:1) and 60% woody (60+:1). Until today I’d never actually looked at how much of each is in a bucket of coffee grounds.

coffee buckwts

In this picture the top bucket is a full bucket of grounds from the shop. The not completely visible bucket at the bottom is an empty bucket I split into the two middle buckets. The one on the left is all the filters with as little gunk still on them as I could manage. The right one is all coffee grounds.

woody part

I improvised a measurement tool with this stick I broke off at the height of the bucket, since Dr. Elaine suggests not being too adamant about precision in backyard compost settings. I pushed down the volume of the filters and stuck the stick in and found that about 1/3 of the bucket was full of filters or, my “woody” material.


high n part

The coffee grounds or high N material was 2/3 of the stick. So this gives me a terrible ratio of 33% woody and 66% high N. When you have a super skewed ratio like this it’s going to be almost impossible for the pile to not go anaerobic. That is, to run out of oxygen, create conditions for actinobacteria, and the even worse really stinky truly anaerobic bacteria.

When you smell a yucky compost pile, you’re smelling the nutrients in the materials blowing away in gaseous forms. Boooo.

And here’s a bad picture of an ever worse compost pile:

bad compost

That white ashy layer is a layer of actinobacteria that indicates that the oxygen levels are dropping to nearly anaerobic levels… and further inside the pile it’s certainly anaerobic. I get the smell of hot soy sauce, like some kind of gross umami thing going on.

So, all those times Sam has complained about the smell of my compost covered boots or hands, she’s been right. Joel Salatin says that if a farm stinks you’re smelling mismanagement. It took me way too long to understand that I’ve been severely mismanaging my compost. I’ve made 2 years worth of heavily bacterial putrefied organic matter, not compost. Rats.

Next up: finishing the compost class, doing the compost tea, and microscope classes. Once I do those and begin making truly good compost, I hope to rename this blog Poopaculture One. I’ve learned that even more than I knew, healthy sustainable fertility is all about poop.