Skip the Compost Pile?

Published by mwatersong on

Compost is the miraculous formed in worm guts; a homebrew resurrection where weeds, rinds, peels, junk mail, old love letters, failed food experiments and delicious leftovers alike find themselves heaped together to surrender their past and be reborn.  Compost piles are a kind of devotional poetry and a shrine to decay. To me, that alone is more than enough reason for anyone to keep one. And yet…

… by my third garden or so, I found myself not wanting to bother with a compost pile anymore.

I used compost to start most of my gardens, but when it came to my own bins, turning it was a chore that I never seemed to be able to get around to. It never quite fit into my routine. The garden would lure me in with all the veggies to harvest, weeds to nibble, and new critters to meet, but the compost pile sat to the side neglected.

Why didn’t I feel the passion for composting others around me seemed to have? Wasn’t having a sweet compost pile the mark of a good natural gardener?

Following the Feeling

When I don’t feel motivated to do a task, I like to take a step back and look at it. Sometimes I just have to get it done; but often, a feeling of resistance is an indicator that something about the task can be re-designed to be more in harmony with my own life and the system I’m working within.

Felt intuition is very important in permaculture design. It helps us break free from the often disastrous ways we’ve been conditioned to do things in the modern world. When we support our emerging intuition with the wisdom in the permaculture design system, real transformation can take place.

Notice how this compost bin system would work just fine, but isn’t really connected to the rest of the garden... it would work just fine, but what else is possible?

Permaculture principles and design tools can illuminate paths we might not have ever considered. Let’s try applying them to the beloved old compost bin pattern and see what emerges.

Applying the Permaculture Principles

Permaculture Principles
David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture design principles

Every time a compost pile gets rained on, it leeches fertility wherever the compost bin is, which is often not where we’re trying to grow anything.

It’s like making compost tea then just pouring it on the ground randomly instead of feeding the plants we want to grow. The same is true for all the juicy interchange that happens when soil microorganisms interact with the soil below the pile. The best soil on our whole land might be that inaccessible few square feet underneath the compost pile!

Turning the piles releases waste CO2 (and other gases) to the atmosphere, and I’d always rather have that carbon be in the soil where I need it. If we apply the Permaculture principle of “Produce No Waste,” we see that the fertility, microbial activity, and soil carbon are being somewhat wasted in a typical turned compost pile.

If you’ve ever seen or put your hands in a big compost heap, you know that it can release a lot of heat. There are even compost pile spa treatments! How can we apply “Catch and Store Energy” and use this thermal energy to help regenerate our systems, rather than just releasing it to the air?

Applying the principle, “Use and Value Diversity” I want to consider that hot composting can kill the mycorrhizal fungi that are so beneficial to plant life, leading to a much less diverse system. What can I do to increase biological diversity in the compost system?

Turning compost can sterilize weed seeds, which is usually seen as an advantage – but since I accept some weeds as an inevitability, and I like to try to select more and more for a seedbank of useful weeds (like lambs quarter, purslane, dandelion, wild mustards, cat’s ear, wood sorrel, chickweed, miners’ lettuce, creasy greens, wild lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and so on..!), I want my weed seeds alive! Since some weeds are inevitable, I think of my weeds as another seed bank I can select for over time, and what I want to select towards the most is edibility. If I sterilize my weed seeds, weeds will still show up; but any selection I did for “useful” weeds gets reset.

The permaculture principle “Use Edges and Value the Marginal” reminds us that the places where two ecosystems / cultures / microclimates meet are often the most life-giving. A compost pile is a very interesting ecosystem of its own, but we often do nothing special with the edges of it, just containing it in a bin. The possibility for exciting interactions between the compost and other parts of the land go mostly ignored.

The principle of “Integrate, Rather than Segregate” may be the biggest clue for me of what to change here. When we integrate systems together into a greater whole, there is the opportunity for everything within them to benefit each other. What if we break down the idea of a separate compost pile and find a way to integrate all that juicy microbiology where it can be benefit not just as a finished product, but the through the whole cycle of glorious rot?

Exploring Some New Patterns for Compost

It turns out that in this case, I’m hardly the only permaculturist to abandon the practice of turned compost piles in bins. Let’s look at some other options!

Pattern Solution 1: Compost in the Garden Bed

Toby Hemenway (author of Gaia’s Garden) was the first gardener I’d ever known to write about eschewing the compost pile. His strategy was simple: bury kitchen scraps right in the garden beds. Whoa.. is this really OK?

I’ve tried this since and found it to be very satisfying. It doesn’t work in every situation, and it doesn’t need to. It might be best applied when I’m re-working a bed for later planting or sowing a bed in cover crop for the winter, but there’s nothing stopping me from tucking in a bucket of kitchen scraps next to one of my perennials.

When I’ve wanted to avoid digging into a planted bed, I’ve gone and added a little woven-stick compost “basket” in the middle of a garden bed to take a few weeks of kitchen scraps and weeds I’ve weeded from that bed (which I then cover with leaves, straw, or woodchips). I know that every time it rains on that mini-pile, all the leachates go right into the garden where plants are actively growing. The wriggly invertebrate party it summons all happens right where I want the most life. The heat from the compost breakdown warms the garden beds to help germination in the cool seasons. It looks cool. And I don’t need to turn anything.

While writing this, I found that a style of garden bed with a compost basket on top has already been popularized in Zimbabwe and spread throughout Africa. Check out this amazing integrated garden bed + compost design.

Pattern 2: Compost Pile as Garden Bed

One of my teachers at Earthaven Ecovillage, Patricia Allison, had one of my favorite and most simple ideas for compost: this year’s compost pile is next year’s garden bed.

Each season or year or however long it takes you to make a pretty big garden bed sized compost pile, put all your scraps in a location you want to make a raised bed. You could enclose it with log borders or just mound it high and stabilize it with layers of mulch.

Let it rot and do its thing. Alternate layers of food scraps with thick layers of leaves, straw, and / or woodchips. Toss the weeds from the neighboring garden beds in, too. When it’s big enough, cover it with an extra layer of mulch and let it sit.

Start a new pile for a new garden bed. Over time, you will have deep tilthy garden beds made by composting in place with very exciting subterranean happenings.

When you’ve made all the garden beds you need, go back to the first bed you made this way years ago and recharge it by making that your new compost pile.

My inclination would be to put a fertility-hungry plant in the first year of these beds, like maize, sorghum, tomato, or squash; but make sure the tilth is finished enough that it the plant roots can figure out what’s going on. It might be a little wild in there.

Pattern 3: Compost Pile Between Garden Beds

From Sepp Holzer, I got (and tested) the idea of putting your compost pile between two raised beds.

He often uses beds raised quite high, and that might be a requirement for this. It would take some planning of paths to make sure you don’t have to be stepping in compost, but a keyhole bed pattern could work well.

This diagram is from Ediblescapes.org where it’s called a “Banana Circle” because bananas. It seems like they’re working in a more tropical biome but the idea applies well.

The idea is to put the compost pile for the year between beds so, once again, all the nutrients and biological activity go right to where they can be appreciated / eaten. The heat from the composting would also heat the adjacent bed, increasing the biological life in most seasons and making them available for planting earlier. The raised garden beds would provide a windbreak for the pile and further prevent it from drying out and be another haven for the microorganisms that love to eat the scraps. It might be ideal for an outdoor vermicompost (worm compost) system.

After it’s all broken down, you could keep composting in that spot or let it sit and dig the composted path up to add to the top of the beds. This is a great use of the “edge effect” where the edge of the compost system interacts with the edge of the garden beds.

I think this pattern would work best between perennials. Compost between trees, shrubs, bamboo, nettles, comfrey – try it out!

Many perennials would have no trouble taking up any extra nutrients from the adjacent compost and could then themselves be cut and used as a more gentle green manure mulch or compost tea on any other garden beds.

Other Patterns?

Some other considerations:

  • If you do have a compost pile and like turning it, go ahead and turn it! But if you want to have a pile and just have it sit, there are advantages in that, too. It retains much more of the nutrients, microbial, and fungal life and it requires less work.
  • Un-turned piles don’t break down as fast so you have to wait longer for finished compost.
  • Hot compost piles do allow for very cool integration with anything that needs heat – think greenhouses, seedling starting heat mats, radiant flooring, a compost hot tub?! Just putting your compost pile in the greenhouse to heat the greenhouse (if it’s big enough to generate heat) can be a great improvement to start with.
  • Critters might be attracted to your in-the-garden compost, it’s true. I haven’t had any problems with it and deep mulching the pile may prevent that; plus most gardens I know are fenced anyway. Putting all the “green” food scraps in a 5 gallon bucket so they build up and rot a little bit and adding them all to your garden compost site at once, then immediately covering them with a few inches of “brown” material (leaves, woodchips, etc.) should keep most bigger critters from bothering the pile, and most critters don’t especially love partially-rotted food anymore than we do.

What other patterns can you come up with for reducing waste, lowering maintenance, and better integrating your compost process into your life?

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1 Comment

Deborah Amaral · February 22, 2022 at 9:27 pm

I love this! We have a pile, conveniently located with respect to the kitchen door, but we joke that it is basically a wildlife feeding station, because we just keep adding and never turning. When starting a potential new bed about a year ago, I forked some of this pile into a wheelbarrow and took it to the new site, spread it, covered it with cardboard, and mulched heavily with rotting woodchips. I still haven’t intentionally planted anything there, yet, but was puzzled to realize I had a small crop of baby avocado trees “volunteering” there. One made it through a number of freezes last Fall, and I got excited to think I might be able to select for an avocado that would grow here. I think it finally got zapped, though. We’ll see.

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