Making the Best Compost


October 24, 2016

It appears that what we think about making the best compost is all wrong. Adding any compost that is pesticide free to the garden is definitely better than none at all, but is there something amiss with the widely used acceptable ingredient list? What about the process itself?

For starters, if you’re not actually turning that pile regularly, then you’re just adding to the greenhouse gases problem. Secondly, if you’re only composting food waste, your final product is probably seriously lacking in both quality and structure. And anyone reading this who thinks I’ve lost my mind, bear with me. By the end of this, you’ll see that it makes a lot of sense.

Years ago, my parents had a friend, Philip, originally from Germany, who bought a house with the most horrible soil. He was having a really hard time getting grass to grow, but he wanted a vegetable garden. A fact that had my father, the 1-acre garden guy, privately commenting on what a failure that would be in the dirt so poor. But Philip had tons of leaves dumped in the chosen area of the backyard. They were trucked in by a landscaping company every fall for 4 years. Just leaves. No yard waste or grass clippings. He spread them out, let them sit over the winter, and tilled them in when warm weather returned. He worked the ground in spring, and again as fall approached, preparing for the next mountain to arrive. In the end, that garden produced an incredible harvest. It was beautiful, rich soil. And I forgot all about that episode from childhood until this afternoon, when I came across a YouTube video:

Everything You Know About Compost is Wrong

What? And as I started watching it, the guy says…

“Every agricultural study ever done says that 2″ of yard waste compost made with the nutrient rich energy harnessed by trees through their leaves is all that any plant needs to be fed, and protected from disease for an entire season.”

Is this true? Well, yes. They have a much higher nitrogen content than straw and sawdust, but not excessively high, like grass clippings. They also contain vitamins, and…

“Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure. For example, the mineral content of a sugar maple leaf is over five percent, while even common pine needles have 2.5 percent of their weight in calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus, plus other trace elements. Since most trees are deep-rooted, they absorb minerals from deep in the soil and a good portion of these minerals go into the leaves.” The Compost Guide

At this point, the memory of Dad thinking his pal was crazy trying to fix subsoil with mountains of leaves came rushing back. As did his amazement over this repairing all that ailed it. Excavation and bringing in topsoil was Dad’s preferred solution. Going back to the video, it wasn’t long before the speaker relates to the audience just how valuable fall leaves are to people in Europe, while we Americans quickly dispose of them.

So, the real reason that the forest can maintain itself without any assistance isn’t just compost, but composted leaves. So, what if the leaves never fell, and only the fruits were deposited on the soil? But that’s not Nature’s process – even evergreens shed the old leaves or needles every 2-3 years. To a homeowner, they’re the biggest nuisance, but the purpose is to create nutrition and immunity for the tree. Imagine the number of nutrients and micronutrients it takes per year to sustain a tree of massive proportions. And all you’re trying to keep going well are some shallow rooted fruits, vegetables, and flowers. But a tree’s root system is wider than it’s canopy, and generally as deep as it is tall. It has access to important mineral deposits your garden inhabitants will never find, so how can they add that to your compost? And are you buying extra humus to make your compost a better soil amendment? If so, then it’s not the best compost after all.

Though it just so happens that in the forest, a particular species, or small group of species, is sustained by the soil composition and available nutrition. Because their waste is also their food source, perfectly formulated to give them the balanced diet they require. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that. Even so, long-established trees are always the best survivors of heat, drought, cold, and wet conditions because they are self-sustainable due the immense amount of sun energy they absorb, and the amount of nutrition they generate into their leaves from that massive root system.

Now consider that the leaves of most vegetable or flowering plants turn to mush when frost arrives. Tree leaves don’t. They just turn color, and fall to the ground. Obviously, they’re made of much tougher stuff. And then there is the fruits versus the leaves, which make up a good share of the food waste in the average compost pile. Yes, they contain elements that are important to soil fertility, but it was given to them thanks to what the roots and sun put into the leaves. Without those leaves, there would be no fruiting going on. And the fruits forming do not put any strain foliage maintenance or production.

All you really need is leaves and winter. Perhaps some nitrogen to break down what’s left come spring faster…

Very interesting. So why are we going about it in such a complicated way? Let the worms handle the food waste, and nature take care of the rest. Certainly, Mike McGrath in the video, being past editor of Organic Gardening Magazine is onto something. Philip definitely was. McGrath retired from the magazine only because he was offered the opportunity for a radio show. Today, his “You Bet Your Garden” broadcasts air all over the US and Canada.

Learn more about how to make the best compost with these comprehensive and informative guides by Epic Gardening and DIY Garden.



Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.

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