Ask the Permie Pro

By Dick Pierce

Dear Permie Pro,
Q: Now that it’s spring, we’re cleaning up our yard. We have a lot of leaves, and we’d like to compost to reduce our family’s contribution to the landfill. The catalogs and nurseries are full of devices—some quite expensive—to make compost. Do we really need one of these? And if so, which is the best? —Composter Wannabe


Dear Wannabe,
I’ve wanted to comment on this for years to set the record straight as to what you do and don’t need in order to compost.

First, let’s look at what compost is and how to make it. Dead leaves, brown grass and shredded paper are known as “browns” and contain mostly carbon. Kitchen scraps, fruit peels and green grass contain a lot of nitrogen—they’re called “greens.”

Soil bacteria, protozoa, good nematodes and other soil organisms love to chomp the browns to make humus —the product of decomposition that Nature recycles back as food for new plants. The microbes also need the nitrogen found in greens to build their bodies and make more microbes, and water and air to get all of their work done. To make sweet-smelling compost that recycles nutrients and keeps plants and soil healthy and moist, you need browns, greens, water and air. Any device or technique that delivers all four simultaneously results in good compost. The most important thing to remember is that the microbes and the materials don’t care what container they’re in—it’s all about the balance. If a container doesn’t drain well, or if it doesn’t properly hold moisture, that’s not good.

The simplest way to compost is to create a pile or heap of materials by alternating layers of browns and greens. Mist or wet each layer as you build, then fluff every two layers to create air pockets. I like to build the pile on a wooden pallet (often free), which allows air to circulate up into the pile and any excess moisture to drain away. The ideal size for a compost pile is one cubic yard, or about 4 feet at the base and 4 feet tall. Cover the final layer with a good coat of dry leaves to hold moisture, prevent evaporation and insulate the pile as it heats up. (Heat is good!) I surround the finished pile on all sides with vertical pallets tied with string or wire so the structure looks neat and tidy. This form of composting involves almost no investment and about 30 minutes every one to two weeks turning the pile (two people please—one to turn, one to mist). To turn, simply drop one side pallet to the ground and turn the pile onto it. 

Of course, fancier (and more expensive) methods are available—barrels to roll, cranks to turn, things to invert. These models often work well when new and less than half full, but I see a lot of abandoned barrels with broken cranks, gears or latches, or that have simply become too heavy to crank or roll. When working, they blend together the browns and greens nicely, but can become waterlogged and dormant or stinky without air.

Whatever method you choose, thanks for composting! It’s an important contribution to the environment, and it builds topsoil and nutrition right where they’re needed.