Composting – To Rot or not to Rot, That is the Question!

Is Composting a hobby? Well, the answer is it certainly can be. For any serious gardening effort, it is a huge part of any sustainable or organic garden. And, even though it seems simple enough, there is a lot that can be done to speed up the process and get better results.

But, all you have to do is pile up your leaves and let them rot, right? It can be that simple but there are a large number of options for getting the job done. This is part of the fun and what makes it a hobby worthy of its own page.

The decomposition of plant matter to produce compost is not a new idea, in fact it has been happening for as long as plants have grown on the face of this earth. It is a natural process that returns nutrients and organic matter to the soil providing most of what plant roots need to grow healthy. Early humans dumped their food wastes into piles and discovered that plant seeds that sprouted in those pile grew rather better than those placed on the hard ground. They most likely put their seeds in the piles intentionally after that!

The use of composting to turn organic wastes into valuable soil additives is rapidly growing in the back yard garden, as gardeners discover the benefits. This growth has greatly expanded the tools, options and knowledge associated with this activity.

Composting Basics

It is all about creating an environment where billions of little microbes (Fungi, bacteria and a host of others) can thrive. These little critters are hungry and live off the waste material you add to the pile. If the pile is cool enough, insects and worms will jump in and help with the decomposing process. The other critical parts of this process are air and water that the little critters need to live.

All of these living creatures are “aerobic” meaning they need air to survive and thrive. Without air “anaerobic” microbes begin to grow and will cause slow decomposition but it will be a smelly process. So, it is important to give your little workers a breath of air every so often to keep things smelling nice and earthy.

In addition to waste material and air, microbes and worms need water to keep the decomposition process going. To get an idea how wet your pile should be, take a towel and wet it, then wring it out. That’s how wet it should be. Much wetter than that and you deprive your little workers of air and drier then that, they will die of thirst.

A good compost pile needs to contain a good mix of “browns” and “greens”. This means materials like dry leaves, sawdust, wood chips and straw (“browns”) need to be mixed with fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves and grass cuttings (“greens”) to decompose quickly. The greens have much more nitrogen in them which is a critical building block in making proteins and amino acids that make up the multiplying microbes.

One misconception that some people have is that it has to be warm for composting to work. It is true that higher temperatures favor the decomposition process but any temperature over about 50 degrees F. will support the growth of the microbes. The process can even continue during the cold of winter as the billions of microbes eat away generating heat which, if the pile is big enough, will insulate the hungry hoard from the


The systems that people use for this process are as varied and diverse as the people that use them. There are one, two and three bins systems. There are tumbling or rotating systems, trench systems, worm bins and a vast array of commercially available devices. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to cost, complexity, speed and capacity.

One, two or three bin systems are made from simple materials like a cardboard box, wire mesh, old pallets or anything that can be made into a container with no bottom. Bins can be three sided, four sided or no sided. Also, these can be just be as simple as an open pile in the back yard. Typically you use one of these systems because you have a large volume of material to decompose. Many people use bin systems such that they fill one per year, turn over the material a few times per year and after two years have some great compost. Low tech but works great.

Tumbling and rotating type systems are typically a barrel that either tumbles end over end or lies on its side and rotates horizontally. These come commercially in virtually any size. Advantage of this type is that they decompose materials fast. This is offset by their relative small size and high cost. Give them a turn every day or so to aerate the contents and the healthy active microbes can turn out compost in as little as four weeks. Keep a small amount of the previous batch to “seed” the microbes into each successive batch.

Trench composting is the ideal low cost system for people that have sufficient garden space. Dig a trench about eight inches deep and lay in your garden waste, cover with some soil and let it be for two months. Microbes and worms immediately go to work. After two months you can plant directly over the decomposed material and plants will love it.

Commercially built systems main advantage is that they keep your wastes neatly contained. They also are reasonably fast acting. The disadvantages include small size and relatively high costs.

Worm bin or “vermicomposting” are great for handling vegetable food wastes and are perfect for that quiet corner of the garage. The system consists of several trays that are rotated from top to bottom position. As the worms finish their work in the bottom tray, they move up one level. The lowest level is emptied of the worm manure and then placed at the top for refilling with more vegetable waste. And the process continues. These units also produce a “tea” which is the liquid waste from the worms. The tea is high in plant nutrients and great for indoor plants. Disadvantages include cost, finding the right worms and low capacity. Advantages include indoor use, works even in winter, and some unique fertilizer products for your plants.

Final Thoughts

There are numerous books and websites dedicated to composting which can give you more in-depth information.

This process is a critical part of “living green” and working towards a sustainable garden. It is fun and good for you and the environment. I know that I get a great workout when I go out and turn over the materials in my bins!

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