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Letting It Rot: The Lazy Way to Compost

By September 24, 2010September 22nd, 201112 Comments
by Erica Bowman

We can all breathe a sigh of relief: composting can be effective even for those of us who are less-than-precise. Here’s how to compost the easy way:

A delicious forkful of Erica’s pre-sifted aged compost. Photo: Erica Bowman.

A lot of people I know wax poetic on their perfected method of composting. They offer recipes with precise measurements of green matter to brown. They provide timetables for turning and regularly measure the core temperatures of their heaps. The fertilizer ratio of the resulting humus allows them fantastic bragging rights.

I definitely salute these people in their quest for compost perfection. As for me, however, my disposition is to allow for decomposition. I’m not opposed to the scientific approach to composting–I just don’t have the time for it. With at least two acres dedicated to farm, garden, and a chicken flock, my chief concern is understandably waste removal. Therefore my modus operandi is to just LET IT ROT.

L: Letting it Rot; R: The fenced-in food waste pile. Photos: Erica Bowman.

How To:
Letting things rot is actually quite easy. Some might even call it the lazy way to compost. You don’t need a lot of land, a lot of time, fancy equipment, or a degree in soil science to do it. In my case, I just chose an out-of-the way spot no bigger than 8′ x 20’, piled on the biodegradables, and walked away. I rarely turn my pile. I do not know fertilizer ratios of my composted matter. Furthermore, my thermometer has never seen the inside of the compost pile, and it is going to stay that way.

What Goes In, What Stays Out:
Originally I put into the compost pile only items that were recognizable from their earlier plant form: grass clippings, leaves, weeds, garden cuttings, carrot shavings, tea leaves, etc. I am now experimenting with other biodegradables such as paper plates, chicken manure, and even paper-based diapers. I don’t add invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed or purple loosestrife lest they take hold in the rich environment and spread. I keep out plants with spreadable diseases like blight-infected potatoes or maple leaves with tar spot for fear that they will infect other plants. I keep the woody material separate because it takes longer to break down. I also allow my kitty litter to decompose independently to avoid the introduction of pathogens. To avoid disease and deter scavengers, I never add meat or bones to my compost pile, but I have known animal farmers who were less picky in this regard.

L: Rob demonstrates compost sifting; R: Compost on one side; sticks and stones on the other. Photos: Erica Bowman.

Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too:
Remarkably, even composting the laid-back, lazy way has its rewards. Each spring, with a little bit of sifting, I can generate yards and yards of perfect, friable humus. Unsurprisingly, this offering from the gods of decomposition is a present with presence. Referred to by some as “black gold,” humus can bring both life and lift to the garden soil in the form of microbes, nutrients, and aeration. The gift seems almost undeserved since, after all, the microbes did most of the work.
My sifting device is a rather crude rectangle of rough-cut 2×6’s with a coarse metal screen attached with metal staples. The whole screen is about 3′ x 5’ in size and propped up at about a 45-degree angle from the ground with a wooden 2×4 like some sort of Elmer Fuddian rabbit trap. I have seen smaller screens, including some that fit over a wheelbarrow, which would save a step. I like mine because I can sift and resift the same material until all of the loose granules are on one side of the screen, and the rocks, sticks, and un-decomposed matter sits on the other.

What (or Who!) May Come:
Do predators, scavengers, and other wild and domestic animals find my pile? Yes. Where I live there are skunks, raccoons, weasels, fisher cats, coyotes, wild turkeys, and even black bears that live in the forest. There is evidence that some of these creatures have sampled the bounty of my compost in the past, before I fenced off the area used to dump kitchen scraps. In my case, the wildlife did nothing to harm me or the pile. If anything, it just helped reduce its size a bit. I only fenced off the kitchen-scrap pile at the request of our neighbor, whose dog was frequenting the “free buffet” a bit too often for her liking.

Portraits of a composter: L: Hard at work; R: Savoring the rewards. Photos: Rob Willis.

Odors, Insects, and Other Undesirables:
I do not find the smell of a well-aerated compost pile to be necessarily displeasing. It is a sweet scent, rich with fecundity, like decomposing leaves on the forest floor. When the matter becomes anaerobic, however, that’s a smell of a different nature. Anaerobic conditions will not normally present themselves in a compost heap, where the water can drain away, but will definitely occur in a waterlogged kitchen compost bucket or wheelbarrow filled with both compost and rain. To avoid any offensive aromas, get the compost to the pile quickly and site the pile in a place with good drainage and at a distance from windows and doors.
A healthy compost pile will be teeming with worms, bacteria, fungi, insects, and microorganisms of all kinds. The compost pile needs these critters to break down the organic material. Their waste adds to the nutritional value of the future humus. Some people are so enchanted with vermiculture that they keep worms in the house to eat their food scraps and then bag the worms’ waste for fertilizer. Not for you? Don’t worry. Interaction with these creatures is not necessary part of the “Let it Rot” method of composting. You can simply throw your waste on the pile and turn a blind eye to these hardworking bugs.
The one drawback to lazy composting is that the pile often doesn’t get hot enough to kill off the weed seeds. Some say that a pile needs to be 145 degrees or more for at least 30 days to kill off the seeds. The pile should ideally be turned and rotated so that all corners of the pile get exposed to these extreme temperatures of decomposition. Since I rarely find time to turn my pile, the resulting humus can generate weeds. Drat.

Who Can Compost?
Most readers of this blog can (or already do) compost. Most suburban and rural properties have a space for a compost pile, and it can be worked into the overall landscape design as a garden component. From conversations I have had with non-composters, I have found that the chief deterrents are: a) feeling intimidated by the process; b) a perceived lack of space; or c) fear of the smell, creatures, or other undesirables. I hope this article has assuaged the negative preconceptions for some. For those still not convinced, all is not lost. A municipal garbage heap may be the answer.

Municipal Garbage
Historically the word “garbage” referred to food waste which was kept separate from the non-biodegradable trash in its treatment. This is important to do because, ironically, biodegradables do not decompose very rapidly, if at all, in the anaerobic environment of a landfill. Some studies have shown that it takes a grape up to 50 years to decompose in landfill conditions. Statistics like these have prompted communities to reinvigorate their composting efforts if only to reduce their waste stream. Hooray! Perhaps it is time that we redefine the term “garbage” and distinguish it from other trash, just as we do with “recyclables” in order to encourage even more composting!

Black gold, ready to be returned to the garden. Photo: Erica Bowman.

Black Magic?
Is there magic involved? Yes, there is something magical about decomposition if you ask me. That a garden’s own waste can rot and become the fuel for its future self is pretty remarkable. I like the lazy method of composting because it’s like getting a high yield from a low amount of work–a rare event in the world of gardening. Like it or not, if you leave something biodegradable out in the elements for some time, COMPOST HAPPENS.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Erica,

    You are such a wonderful writer and great gardener! As in all your posts, you tackle the many facets of your topic and demystify it for us all. Thanks!

  • I’m with you. I do not have a nice piece of property like you show, but I throw in pretty much all of what you do, minus chicken poo, which I would gladly add if the city would grant me permission for a couple of chickens. Maybe I give it a turn of two, but mostly my four containers just sit and rot. I was surprised this week, that container number one had rotted and was ready for the garden. Nature is pretty obliging.

  • Jerry ward says:

    Erica captured exactly my style of composting and I can verify that a couple of rich wheelbarrow loads of compost come out every spring or fall and get spread back onto the gardens. I even skip the sifting, because for raised beds the soft sticks and stuff just adds to the mulch layer. Tree roots and mussel shells don’t rot well, so leave them out if you don’t like looking at them strewn back in your garden.

  • Alix says:

    There is nothing I love more than a lazy garden. The only thing missing is a nod to our mother and grandmother, who are both master composters of the “let it rot” variety.

  • Dorothy says:

    Me too! I’m a let it do its thing kind of composter. But I do have a plastic compost bin that hides it a bit. Eventually I get amazing stuff out of the bottom of the bin. In Sweden I saw a rotating composter that speeds up the process. But probably too much trouble.
    All I have to do now is make myself a sifting screen.

  • Shawn Mayers says:

    Thanks for helping us lazy composters feel as if it’s OK to come out of the closet…..what about sheet composting? Now THAT’S lazy/appealing!

  • amy says:

    ahhhh yes…lovely!

    In my case I toss it to the agutis and they poop the delicious matter through the forest…not much humus collected I have to admit but I compromise by digging out a little jungle where leaves and such have decomposed for years.

    Loved your piece and I too tip my hat to the mamas and grandmothers who made this the most logical thing in the world.

  • Harry Quigley says:

    the nice picture of a compost pile you have here has “chicken wire” as the material. I would suggest that the more rigid 4 foot high fence wire with approx 3/4″ by 1 1/2″ openings is more sturdy and lasts 3-4 years. Just buy a roll and cut about 10 foot lengths to have a nice meter wide, 4 foot high bin. make a cylindrical bin by bending the ends together. We have 3 of them, one always nearly ready for use as finished compost, one the “roughest” of our fall deadheading, grass clipping, leaf raking, kitchen scrapping materials. yes, the local racoons sift thru the goodies. I notice you seem to have wooden stakes to hold the fence material up. I suggest that you get lengths of rebar (steel) cut to about 6 foot lengths with a hacksaw. 4 of these support the bin nicely and pull out easily. when ready to move from more rough to less rough, pull out the rebar, pull up the fence material, put the cylinder of fence material right next to where it was sitting, and throw the stuff back into it, which does a great job of mixing. at the bottom, you’ll find the ready to use compost. any decent sized yard will need a spot for 2-4 of these wire composting bins. very effective, real cheap.

  • Erica says:

    Harry,

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Pretty impressive post. I just came across your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

  • Thank you! We appreciate the feedback and hope you continue to enjoy our blog. Best wishes!

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