Cows and manure

Spoiler Alert! Food Scraps Do Not Make Compost

cow pat
Shovelling fresh cow pats

Whoever started the idea that collecting food scraps constitutes composting has a lot to answer for.

But after more than a decade of following this incomplete advice and coming up with nothing but slop resembling the inner workings of the large intestine, I think I might have finally figured this composting caper out.

Over the years I have picked up loads of advice about layering dry and green ingredients, creating a consistent temperature to effect the decomposition process and so on. But I consistently miss the mark.

Einstein allegedly claimed that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Still I persisted in collecting food scraps while that mythical, sweet humus continued to elude me.

I tried the Bokashi method, where all food scraps – even meat and dairy – are fermented using special grains to aid decomposition. I somehow managed to get that wrong, too, and my slop creation went on.

The next step in my composting journey came after reading Linda Woodrow’s The Permaculture Home Garden, which scandalously stated that a compost heap is not slowly accumulated, but rather created all in one hit.

Whaaaaat??!!

The more I researched the steps to garden ambrosia, the more I realised that proper compost is created like a luscious sacher torte not a packet mix trifle; it’s all about the ingredients.

But I didn’t understand. How could I keep food scraps long enough to acquire all the other ingredients necessary to make compost in one hit?

Last year’s Demeter Biodynamic Compost Workshop was an eye-opener and a turning point.

Looking beyond all the rules and rituals that I’m not yet organised enough to implement, the biodynamic composting method comprised three ingredients combined, heaped and left to do its work. And that gave me a plan. Adopt and adapt.

My bins full of disgusting, decomposing food would comprise the “green ingredients” in my new, improved composting recipe.

Next step: healthy and fresh cow manure. In pondering a source, I thought of SageChoice, the Bannockburn farm where we buy our grass-fed beef and lamb, and figured their poop should be pretty clean. Farmer Chris Balazs cheerfully assured me there were “sh#tloads” free for the taking. So my husband, son and I spent a surprisingly fun morning shovelling cow pats into a trailer, chatting to the bemused bovines and exchanging increasingly bad poo jokes. It was almost romantic, in a we-don’t get-out-much kind of way.

Farmer Chris was even kind enough to give us a shovelful of ready-made compost so the good bacteria could get things started.

Heating up
The manure begins to heat up

Not having time to create the heap that day, I broke another biodynamic rule and left the pats in a covered heap until the weekend. When I got back to it three days later it was amazing to feel the heat and see the feathered tentacles of white mould spreading the bacterial goodness across the manure. It is genuinely surprising what excites me these days.

The hands-down grossest bit was emptying out the old compost. While the manure smelt clean and earthy, the “food scrap compost” attracted swarms of flies and a stink that clung to my nasal passages. It oozed through my gloves and into the pores of my skin, where it continued to disgust me for days despite repetitive and increasingly desperate scrubbing.

Next I added leaves from our green ash tree that had been shed last autumn and sat decomposing beneath an old shade sail. However the leaves had inadvertently been piled on top of a bull-ant mound and soon my mixture was riddled with the nasty critters.

After allowing myself a moment of despair at this predictably ridiculous turn of events, I pressed on in the hope that the heat of the pile would kill them off.

I had read that a compost “tea” made of comfrey leaves was a beneficial addition and while I had planted comfrey for this very purpose, I had of course forgotten to brew the tea ahead of time. Adopt and adapt. I tore up the leaves and sprinkled them over the pile of ingredients instead.

compost helper
The garden terrorist takes a breather

The muscle work was mixing it together. Following the compost workshop method, the plan was to combine all the ingredients on the ground before creating the final heap or, in my case, filling the bins.

First I soaked the soil at the base of each bin, then filled each with the mixture, damping it down a little after each barrow load, before finally covering the top with sugar cane mulch, sprinkling with water and triumphantly setting the lids in place.

At the compost workshop I learned it is good practice to create a heap in autumn for use in spring and vice-versa. So I guess all that’s left to do is to wait.

And figure out what to do with my food scraps from now on. Time for chooks, perhaps.

_____________________________________________

Optimistic Compost Recipe

Fills about 5 standard compost bins

You will need

1 x 6×4 trailer-load of fresh, pasture-fed cow manure (or near enough)
2 x wheelbarrow loads of dried leaves (preferably without bull-ants)
1 x armful of comfrey leaves (as a tea or straight-up)
2-3 wheelbarrow loads of rotting food collected over the course of one year (this may be the weak link)

Optional but recommended:

Face-mask to avoid swallowing or breathing flies
Double layer of gloves to guard against food stink on hands

Method

Dump in one spot and combine with a garden fork. Shovel into compost bins, moistening with water after each wheelbarrow load. Top with dry mulch, such as sugar cane or pea straw. Wet down, cover and wait.

 

What’s your favourite compost recipe? Hit me up with your stories of success or – even better for my self-esteem – failure.

 

“You are not a beautiful, unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else and we are all part of the same compost pile.”

-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

4 comments

  1. Fantastic blog Tanya – has inspired me to get my own small scale compost going. Love your writing style too – keep it up!

    cheers

    Chris

    1. Thanks, Chris. I hope to come back for more of the good stuff in Spring!

  2. Thanks for this lovely article. It reminds me of my own optimistic – and very occasionally triumphant – composting attempts. Your method makes good sense and solves the riddle of what to do with scraps which accumulate slowly while best practice dictates creating large piles all at once. It’s funny how good compost seems to become a kind of grail for the optimistic gardener, an essential alchemy to be learned and mastered to prove one’s bonafides. Alas, post-transplant my composting days are largely over… too many complicated bacteria flying about.

  3. You must have been doing something right, because I remember coveting your jungle-like garden in Port Fairy. I hope to prove my bonafides one day. Thanks for your comments 😉

Leave a Reply