Compost: A Gardener’s Most Valuable Resource


By Crystal Stevens

Quality soil is the most vital aspect of growing organically! A healthy, living soil is the key to vigorous and healthy plants. Compost, vermicompost, and other organic soil additions can add nutrients to your soil, improving plant vitality.

As my husband Eric Stevens says, “Building healthy soil is the key to having optimal health in any garden setting. It can be thought of in terms of building the soils immune system to help fight off unwanted diseases or pests.”

Start a compost pile now for next years garden. As sustainable farmers, we love our compost. We have seen the enormous difference that compost makes on crops such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. We have done experiments planting two rows of identical crops; one row with compost added and one row without compost added. The row with compost added doubled in size within just a few short weeks.

My husband Eric observed, “In my 18 years of natural gardening and farming, there has always been a compost pile in the back corner somewhere. From the beginning of my adventures in gardening, I remember the exciting realization that over half of my waste can simply be thrown into a bin in a corner of my yard and over time would break down into the most nutrient rich soil. To me, this concept became more and more fascinating as I noticed the similarities between what was happening in my compost bin and what was happening in nature. I would throw all of my veggie ends and recycled brown paper bags in the compost bin and forget about it for months. When I turned the compost bin, I discovered the black gold that I had been reading about.”

Ideally, all of our garden beds would be exactly like a compost bin, alive with various layers gently breaking down with no compaction. The soil is a living, breathing organism covering the earth’s surface. Like all living things, it needs to be fed proper nutrients to thrive. Nature is good model to follow. We like to encourage individuals to look at nature, to really look. Observe the forest floor up close. Notice the layers of leaves, twigs, moss, fungi, and detritus all decaying at various rates. You will notice the top layer has the appearance of basic mulch. Scratch the surface and you will notice the layers below get broken down inch by inch into perfect soil.

We strive to obtain those rich qualities in the soil by mimicking those natural layers in the substances we add to our own garden soil. Good garden soil is essentially a larger version of a compost pile. A compost pile consists of materials that are in varying stages of decomposition. It also contains many organic materials from veggie scraps to leaf litter to grass clippings.

Good garden soil, like a compost pile, contains a diverse array of organic and detritus and materials with good aeration and good drainage.

Ideal garden soil is composed of ongoing layers of the following:

  • Small stems and twigs
  • Fallen Leaves
  • Grass clippings
  • Compost
  • Worm castings
  • Aged sawdust (untreated)
  • Living Organisms
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Other organic matter

Vermiculture is a fancy way to say worm farming, the use of worms to break down organic material. The byproduct of worm farming is a nutrient rich natural fertilizer called worm castings. Vermicompost is similar to compost but it uses worms such as red wigglers and earthworms to help break down organic material instead of simple heat, pressure, and time. Red Wiggler worms can be purchased online or through mail order.

Worms can also be bought at a bait shop. When you apply vermicompost, rich minerals are added back into the soil. It can also be made into a nutrient rich “compost tea” or “worm tea” which can be used to water garden plants. Worm castings are the final byproduct of vermicompost; essentially worm castings are the aggregate, dark brown rich soil medium found at the very bottom of the vermicompost bin. Worm castings can be added to a seed starting soil mixture. Worm castings can be used to top dress seedlings in pots and can be used to side dress larger transplants in a garden bed or field. Worm castings can also be sprinkled on top of small garden beds. If you plan to compost at home, be sure you have a composting system in place. We use a small trash can with a pedal that lifts the lid. A five gallon bucket with a lid works well. We empty ours every 3 days and there is virtually no smell. If you would like a smaller option, a gallon ice cream container with a lid works well. You can use any container with a lid.

Simple Compost Bin Designs Made from Reclaimed Materials

Wire Fence Cylinder Compost Bin
Use scrap wire fencing with holes no smaller than 2” x 4”. Use a panel which is roughly 10 ft. in length. Form a cylinder and fasten the ends together with bailing wire, overlapping the ends together a few inches for extra support.

Basic Cube Compost Bin
A simple compost bin can be made using reclaimed pallets. It is best to use heat-treated pallets marked with the letters HT on them. HT means that the pallets have been heat treated versus treated with chemicals. Securely fasten four pallets together upright with baling wire.

Vermicomposting Bin
A vermicomposting bin is essentially the same as a compost bin except worms are added to the bin to help break down materials quicker. Worm castings can be harvested and used as organic fertilizer after about four months. A vermicomposting bin can also be built using reclaimed heat-treated pallets. Construct it in the same way except, add a built-in trap door or removable slats to harvest worm castings.

For each of these compost bin designs:
Place the fastened bin in an area of your yard where you will keep it permanently. Place one of the open ends directly onto the soil. To best activate the composting process, fill the empty bin all the way with leaves, grass clippings, straw, and other organic matter. You may then begin adding kitchen scraps such as vegetable ends and peels, fruit peels and ends, egg shells and coffee grounds. Avoid adding meat, dairy, oils, and citrus fruits. Turn your compost regularly with a pitchfork to speed up the process. Do not cover the compost bin. It should be open to the elements. During dry spells, you may need to add water to your compost bin.

While backyard composting is not an exact science, it certainly adds beneficial bacteria and nutrients to your garden beds. However when making your own compost at a larger scale, there are certain factors to keep in mind such as temperature, turning regularly for good air circulation and water drainage, and keeping weed seeds and plant pathogens at bay.

Crystal Stevens is a regular contributor to The Healthy Planet magazine and farmer at LaVistaCSA.org.