Composting is a natural biochemical process of decomposition. It is possible for every vegan-organic grower to produce the darkest, nutrient-rich, earth smelling compost. Adding well-made compost to the soil will ensure a healthy soil and healthier crops. The compost feeds the soil life, helps the soil retain nutrients, increases earthworm populations, suppresses disease and inoculates the soil, produces beneficial hormones for plant growth, improves drainage and provides air pockets for the crop roots to grow in.
Composting as a technique has advantages over turning in green manures, converting the soluble nutrients in the fresh materials into a more stable form (so preventing nutrient leaching). Composting also mixes materials giving a more balanced end product, can kill weed seeds, pests and diseases (if carried out properly) reduces the bulk of the materials and allows plant nutrients to be stored until they are required. The unfortunate thing is that there is never enough compost to go around and that is why some VON members recommend composting and green manuring as complementary techniques whilst others recommend zero tillage mulching systems as an alternative to composting.
Windrow composting – above 20 tonnes Different composting methods from around the world are discussed by R.V. Misra and R. N. Roy in their paper On Farm Composting Methods. Windrow composting consists of placing the mixture of raw materials in long narrow piles or windrows which are turned regularly. The turning operation mixes the plant-based materials and aerates the windrow. The equipment used for turning determines the size, shape, and spacing of the windrows.
Straw bale compost heaps – up to 20 tonnes
Iain Tolhurst manages the following composting system by hand:
Drainage pipes placed under the bales and along the floor every metre will allow air in. Alternatively woody prunings can be laid at the base.
Compost heaps – market garden scale 1 to 5 tonnes per annum
Organic Growers of Durham recommend that heaps are built (either in bays or in a straw bale structure) so that their final size is about 1 – 1.5 metre cubed after the initial piling up. The main advantage is good aeration and heat with no turning.
New Zealand box - despite several variations on a theme the simplest New Zealand box is a wooden structure 120cm / 48" square, 120cm–150cm / 48"-60" high. The wooden sides consist of 6-inch wide by ¾-inch thick boards attached on three sides to four corner posts. The box can be movable, or the posts can be sunk 30cm / 12" into the ground. At the open end a divider in front slides down between two posts so that when you want to empty the box, you can pull the dividers upward and take them out one by one. You can double, triple or quadruple the size of the box. The thick boards forming the back of the bins stretch the entire length of the box. The bin will require end boards 120cm / 48" long and partitions between each 4ft bay. The bays should be covered with some form of lid. Simpler bins can be made out of pallets.
Can buy various plastic bins.
Mixing your "greens" and "browns"
The golden rule of composting is: ingredients of –
in the presence of air and moisture.
Greens, nitrogen rich, lush and fresh
Vegetables (peelings, cores, grade outs); crop residues / foliage; Grass cuttings; fresh green manure plants; annual weeds not in seed
Browns, carbon rich, dry and stemmy
Straw; bean haulm; tomato vines; hay; bracken or any other older plant foliage
Autumn leaves (better for leaf mould); perennial weeds, unless the heap reaches 50 degrees C for a week; annual weeds in seed; cooked food, unless it is entirely vegan, but may still attract rodents; twigs and sawdust (carbon ratio too high)
Prohibited under the stockfree organic standards
Meats; dairy products; fish products; animal manures or by-products; synthetic materials
Compost is ideally prepared from plant-based materials with an initial Carbon : Nitrogen ratio of 30:1. During the composting process the nitrogen percentage increases, whilst the carbon bulk is lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. It will reduce its carbon content to have a ratio about 10:1.
When starting composting:
The difficulty the vegan-organic grower will often encounter is finding enough "browns". Do not rely on twigs or pernicious weeds to make up this element, as they take a longer time to break down and can ruin the quality of the compost. (I’m all in favour of eliminating the hard work of sieving). If you are trying to make fine grade compost suitable for vegetable growing, it is better to leave woody elements in log piles for beneficial insect life as it is better for them to break down through a fungal process. Using straw will prove the easiest way to find sufficient "browns" in the bacterial process of the compost heap.
Straw has hollow stems and can improve aeration of the heap. Apart from aeration, the advantage of straw (dried cereal stems) over hay (dried grass) is the lower weed seed content.
Layering and chopping materials
Plant-based materials will compost best if they are between 2cm - 5cm (1"- 2") in size because of the larger surface area for compost microbes to work on. However, growers will not have the time to go around cutting all materials to this size. Of more importance is correct layering. Ensure that the different types of "greens" and "browns" are well mixed by adding layers no thicker than 10cm / 4". Waste vegetables such as root crops and onions should be kept in individual layers. Brassica stems and prunings can easily be chopped with a sharp shovel or pulverised by a hammer.
Heating the heap
To get a good heat you need to create a 2-metre-cubed compost heap. Materials should be stockpiled until there are enough "greens" and "browns". If done correctly, a pile will heat to high temperatures within 3 days. If it doesn’t, the heap is either:
During composting a maintained temperature of 60°C is strongly advised. A heap that does not heat to at least 50°C for a week is likely to contain weed seed and disease organisms.
Turning the heap
The easiest way to turn the strawbale heap is to extend the side bales by about two bales long and turn the heap into the new area with a fork, adding more greens or browns as required. For the New Zealand or pallet box the heap is moved from one bay to the next. The householder can tip the bin over and refill.
Covering to prevent waterlogging
Excess moisture drowns beneficial micro-organisms. The moisture level should be the equivalent of a wrung-out sponge. Therefore, rain should not be allowed to enter and wash through the heap. There is no point in going to all the other effort with the composting process, only to allow the goodness in the heap to be washed away. Also compost leachate can be a pollutant akin to animal slurry running into water courses.
It is therefore prudent to cover heaps and ensure that any rain water shed ends up outside the heap. Covering a windrow may prove difficult, although Eliot Coleman suggests covering them with woven plastic matting (Phormisol brand name) which helps shed the rain but still allows for aeration.
For the straw bale heap a simple way is the one designed by Iain Tolhurst. Drape a tarpaulin over a ridge pole erected on scaffolding posts. The tarpaulin should be tied down by bales on the sides, but be careful not to cover the sides of the bales, as this will prevent air entry. New Zealand boxes and pallet boxes can be covered with slanting rigid boards covered with roofing felt or tarpaulin. Householders bins usually come with lids.
I personally find creating high quality compost an extremely
rewarding process. And if you observe the management techniques I have
described you too may find the compost heap a source of excitement and joy.
Applying compost to the soil presents the very building block of