Thursday, August 13, 2009

Compost: The Holy Grail

(I wish my compost pile smoked like this.)

My wife and I always have a large vegetable garden. It has never produced all that well. My wife blames me; I blame the soil. Our soil here in southern Tompkins County is clayish and is always in need of more organic matter. It tends to be soggy in early summer and then bone dry in late summer. It is obvious that one answer would be to add that rich, black, loamy material that one can produce by composting. Ahhh, compost--farmers' gold, Jayhawks' jewels, pioneers' platinum, homesteaders' heaven, cornhuskers' crack. Well, you get the idea--it is rich stuff.

To produce compost you simply mix together "green" material with "brown" material. Green material is fresh plant stuffs like grass clippings or kitchen waste, and the greens are your source of nitrogen. Brown material is dried plant stuffs, like old leaves or straw, and this is your source of carbon (=sugars). The nitrogen to carbon ratio in the compost pile is critical to get the pile to do what a proper compost pile is supposed to do--cook. If mixed properly with sufficient moisture, microorganisms multiply in the pile, and their biological activity raises the internal temperature of the pile to about 170 degrees F. The high heat, naturally produced, decomposes the plant material, kills insects, pathogens, and weed seeds, and results in a beautiful mound of black, loamy compost that can be used to amend your lousy soil. I have this vision of looking at my compost pile from afar one cool morning and seeing steam slowly rising from a smoldering heap.

Send Flowers at 1-800-FLORALS

Has never happened. I have built compost piles for about 20 years, and I can never get the temperature of the damn thing warmer than the gravel in my driveway. On the other hand, my younger brother Bill, who lives in Corvallis, Oregon, loves to call me and describe the trash cans full of fantastic compost that he has produced. He produces so much compost that his entire backyard of perennial flower and vegetable gardens is grown in compost only. He doesn't even use the Willamette Valley soil that God put behind his house some time ago. He uses only compost, HIS compost, HIS BEAUTIFUL compost, HIS BEAUTIFUL COPIOUS amounts of compost. I now use my caller ID not to answer the phone when I see that Oregon area code, because I can not stand to hear about HIS compost victory one more time.

And then yesterday morning, it happened. I dutifully checked my pile like I always do and, what the heck, there was heat. Not scorching heat, but an unmistakable increase in temperature that I could feel with my hand. I had to tell Robin right away. I ran to the house screaming "We have heat!", stubbed my large toe on the top rung of the garage stairs as I skipped up the steps, fell into the laundry room just inside the house, and banged my head on the washing machine. I was excited, happy, angry, in pain, and out of breath, all at the same time. I was like a carbon:nitrogen ratio that had gotten all out of kilter. I described to my wife that we had heat in the compost pile but, I must say, she was not nearly as impressed as I had hoped. But, never mind, I had a prideful lilt in my step all day, aside from a small limp.

But by evening, it was gone. What the hell? No heat at all. What kind of a cruel joke is this? Had I imagined the whole thing? Had I incurred that lump on my head for nothing? What will Robin think now? What happens when my brother calls? Within an hour, I had calmed myself into my usual passive state about how life is not fair and don't expect it to be. If my soil sucks and I can't grow beautiful veggies, so be it. Farmers in Iowa might have great soil, but they don't have the Finger Lakes. My brother might have great compost, but he has larger slugs. New York pioneers might have been able to live off the land here, but they didn't have a Toro rototiller. So I'm doing ok. And after all, we can buy tomatoes Saturday at the local Farmers Market.


  1. You missed your calling, Tom! You should have been a comic :-) Thanks for the bright spot in my morning -- I loved this post!

  2. I love to make you smile Marian.

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  4. Lots of coffee shops give away their used coffee grounds- an excellent addition to a compost pile. Also, I've read that bat guano is a good ingredient too, for what it's worth. Good luck with your harvester's heroin!

  5. You know, my brother actually goes around and collects coffee waste from shops in Corvallis. Maybe that IS his secret.

  6. Manure, manure, manure......go to the horse barns at the vet school. Get a half a truckload of FRESH (like that day) horse doo dads (most likely mixed with wood shavings). Add to uncomposted compost, mix, water, watch for steam!!
    Andy Boj

  7. You know Andy, I am covering the garden this fall with cow manure, so I can use that. Good idea.

  8. Dr. Tom,
    Nice post about compost and I'm also envoius of the heat generating from the pile in the picture.
    We've had a compost pile for about 8 years now that gets constantly worked back into our vegetable garden. Our soil is full of little specks of egg shell.
    We also have a cutting board built into our kitchen island that has a slot, where vege and fruit scraps are dropped into the bucket below...then dumped in the pile.
    I don't get a lot of steam, since the pile is covered and usually in the shade, but through deomposition, the composter has never filled in 8 years.