Passive Composting and Why I Think That’s Important – a Contrarian Post

Joshua shared with you his very aggressive, super fast method of composting and fertilizing. Now it’s my turn to share my method with you and how I feel it differs from his in some pretty important ways.

Fast Compost – Gardening Gold (or Is It?)
In the book, Joshua lays out how he meticulously chops up organic matter and turns his piles frequently – resulting in compost in a matter of weeks. Compare that to my method, which is to pile alternating layers of garden refuse, chicken bedding and cut grass onto a forgotten pile. I occasionally inoculate it with worms and whey or other fermentation scraps and leaf mold but otherwise let it break down on it’s own. If the pile is big enough, it will break down in a matter of months. If it’s not big enough, it may take a full winter. If the pile is my worm bin underneath the rabbits inside the chicken run, it breaks down very quickly. Either way I leave it be and accept the results.

What I’ve noticed over the years is the compost that breaks down faster is not as dark or richly sweet smelling or effective a growth medium as the compost that breaks down slowly. I attribute this to the fact that the fast compost method heats the soil up so that some of the bacteria is destroyed, or more aptly, cooked.

When I make cheese from milk that has been heated above 115 F, it does not have the full flavor profile, the subtle nuances and superior texture of cheese from milk that is heated. This is because those bacteria that impart more subtle characteristics have been destroyed. I am guessing, and I have no evidence to support this other than my own observations, that it is the same with my compost. We do know that the most nutritionally rich compost is the most nutritionally diverse compost – which supports the most diverse soil life. And we know that plants cannot absorb nutrients directly from the soil, but instead rely on soil life to absorb those nutrients and excrete them in a manner that plants can absorb. Therefore, the more diverse your soil life, the more nutrients are available to your plants and therefore to you.

In addition to destroying some of the bacteria in your compost, heating it up is basically burning the nutrients off much more quickly. Those nutrients are escaping into the air and washing out in the water – flooding into water tables and streams. I believe this is a manner of polluting. I also believe it’s wasting those nutrients and creating a short lived dose of nutrients that sets up the cycle of needing to fertilize more often than necessary. And since most of us won’t bother getting our soils tested before fertilizing, we once again are using more fertilizer than necessary (with its high carbon price in it’s creation, packaging and distribution) which once again pollutes the atmosphere.

So what do I do instead?

I use animal manures and passive compost and mulch to both feed the soil life and protect soil structure so that it drains easily.
I test my soil and fertilize or mineralize only when needed.
I plant “wild” or easily reseeding vegetables and perennials as much as possible.
I utilize companion planting, interspersing nutrient accumulators and nitrogen fixers with heavy feeders.

Preparing and amending the soil

Because plants take in air through their roots, the soil should have air pockets and good drainage (so the roots don’t become waterlogged, suffocating the plant). By providing decaying organic you create an environment attractive to worms, pillbugs, centipedes, funghi, and bacteria – the web of life – who will find and aerate your soil for you. As organic matter decomposes and creepy crawly critters move through your soil (depositing nutrient-rich outputs along the way), they create air pockets and soil structure. An initial heavy manuring gets the web of life off to a good start. Cover your soil with mulch (decaying matter like wood chips or straw or living mulch like creeping thyme or beneficial insect flower mixes) to prevent your soil from drying out in the sun or becoming compacted in driving rain.

Thereafter, compost “in place” and mineralize as needed to maintain good soil structure. Once you have good soil structure and decaying organic matter, limit soil amendments other than minerals and isolated nutrients to the top layer of the soil. To compost in place, pull back the top layer of mulch, apply a thin layer of items to be composted and then replace the mulch. The web of life will find your compostable matter and convert it into minerals and nutrients in a form that your plants can absorb.

Testing Your Soil

Before applying minerals and nutrients, get a soil test done. AL Labs West, Logan Labs, and UMass all provide results but will analyze those results and prescribe soil amendments. You can find organic amendments at Black Lake Organic, Walt’s Organic, Peaceful Valley or Concentrates NW. There are probably countless other sources closer to you but I am the most familiar to those sources in the Pacific Northwest.

Why Wild, Self-Sowing and Perennial Vegetables?

In addition to not requiring annual reseeding, wild, self-sowing and perennial plants have stronger root structures and therefore are more efficient at absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil. You also are not harvesting the plants every season, which means less soil disturbance (which does not disrupt the cycle of soil life).

Nutrients Naturally

Many people rely on isolated vitamins to make up for shortfalls in a nutritionally deficient diet. I’ve never believed that it’s possible for science to fully understand the complete chemical makeup of a living thing, and the fact that we learn about new nutrients, or ways that nutrients work together in whole foods frequently solidifies that belief for me. I don’t see how it could be any different with fertilizer. We know the bare minimum isolated nutrients to keep plants alive (NPK) but how do we know what other nutrients that plant really needs to thrive, and for us to thrive when we eat it’s fruits, leaves or shoots? We know that food is less nutritious today and in part that’s due to variety breeding – but that’s not the whole story. It’s also about the nutrients available in the soil, both through their presence, and through the amount of soil life that makes those nutrients available to the plants. If we aren’t nurturing the soil life, that soil cannot support the most nutrient-dense food no matter how much we are fertilizing it. And then how do we know which nutrients we are missing by using isolated fertilizers?

Greater Plant Diversity

Nature has a perfect system for creating plant nutrition. Diverse organic matter, strong soil life and diverse plant life. How does diversity in plant life matter? Different plant types uptake different nutrients at different rates. By growing large blocks of the same plants in the same soil, those specific nutrients are drained much faster. But by growing diverse plants in the same soil, those nutrients are utilized more evenly.

Nutrient Accumulators
In addition, some plants with deep tap roots reach way down into the soil to draw up those nutrients created by deep dwelling soil life and make those elusive nutrients available to shallow rooted plants.

Nitrogen Fixers
Nitrogen is present in the atmosphere and washes down during rain storms. Certain plants, like legumes and a handful of bushes, have developed a system for capturing and storing that nitrogen in their root nodules. By inter-planting nitrogen fixers (such as a living mulch of clover) with other plants, you help make that stored nitrogen available to your plant groupings. Plants that need nitrogen will reach down and borrow from that nitrogen “bank” as they need it and without polluting watersheds.

By pairing both nitrogen-fixing and nutrient-accumulating plants along with perennials (for example, a legumous cover crop and a deep tap rooted plant like comfrey) you create a near perfect planting combination. The occasional compost application may be all that combination of plants ever needs to thrive.


20 Responses to Passive Composting and Why I Think That’s Important – a Contrarian Post

  1. So thought provoking!

  2. I prefer your passive/slow method, but not just for the reasons you mention – it’s also in keeping with my “lazy-ass-gardener” ethos : ) BTW, thanks so much for introducing me to hugelkultur. I have some downed wood and a couple young bodies to help put it together this weekend. So excited!

  3. A greater diversity of soil life won’t increase the quantity of available minerals in your soil.

    Are there other compounds, besides minerals, that soil micro-organisms accumulate for your plants’ consumption? I don’t know, that’s over my head. But I suspect there are other benefits to your method.

    In the same way a human body can be conditioned to recognize and respond to known diseases, so passive- or cold-compost contains a faint record of plagues it has known, in the form of dormant predators, ready to re-emerge when they see the bat-signal upon a cloud. In many instances, beneficial micro-organisms outcompete the pests. So in theory, passive composting is like drinking raw milk.

    Eventually, this analogy breaks down. Here’s how: in a backyard compost pile, a full cross-section of micro-organisms survive at the periphery of the pile and quickly recolonize the pile after it passes through the “hot composting” process and cools/cures. You’ve basically cleared the game board and let the micro-organisms compete on their own merits, rather than favoring pest organisms that thrived in the presence of tender garden crops. What you get is a thriving ecosystem without the imbalance that existed before the pile heated up. And as a side benefit, you get stable compost faster (hot composting is much faster) and destroy most weed seeds.

    So which is better? There’s no clear winner. There are costs and benefits to each method. In my yard, I use both methods and apply the product in different areas according to my needs and what I’m composting.

  4. Annette Cottrell

    “A greater diversity of soil life won’t increase the quantity of available minerals in your soil. ”
    Just wondering how you can make this blanket statement? Have you measured minerals using both methods?
    Joshua you and I are coming from different view points. You believe that everything is known. I believe that very little is known. And afor me the proof is in the pile. The compost that I get from a passive pile is so much richer and performs better than hot compost. That tells me they are not at all the same product. Perhaps I need to get my refractometer out and measure the dissolved nutrients in plants grown using both methods, but unfortunately my cold compost remains back in Seattle. Next spring though this sounds like a good experiment…

    • I think the key is I used the word “minerals” and you used the word “nutrients.”

      Minerals are dissolved rocks. No matter how many creatures lay eggs among those dissolved rocks, no matter how many creatures hatch and consume those dissolved rocks, incorporate those dissolved rocks into their exoskeletons, then die and reintroduce those dissolved rocks into to the soil in a more stable form, you won’t increase the quantity of dissolved rocks in your soil.

      But “nutrients” on the other hand – that’s an open question. Nutrients include minerals, but also include compounds – vitamins, fatty acids, and probably all kinds of things we haven’t discovered yet. Such compounds are created all day, every day, by soil micro-organisms. They’re made from finite resources, but as they pass from “unavailable” to “available for biological growth,” they enter the category of “nutrient” and thus increase the size of that category in your soil.

      So are “nutrients” increased in a passive pile, as compared to a hot pile? I have no idea. This would be an excellent experiment. You very well might be on to something, and my openness to this idea permeates all my writing about compost – despite your characterization of me – which I feel suggests that I am like the Mr. Spock of soil-building. When our great battle of compost ends, a battle supposedly between reason and feeling, and we stand amid the ruins, you may find to your surprise that we stand on the same side, just like Spock and Kirk.

  5. Annette Cottrell

    Melany I also am attracted to the lazy ass gardener methods. ;p I have much better ways to spend my time than chopping up bits and turning piles.

  6. Joshua you ARE the Mr. Spock of soil building and I believe you have correctly pegged me as Kirk. How funny! I would prefer to be Picard but sadly, it is not so.

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  8. I have started making a hugelkultur raised bed. I didn’t add any dirt on the bottom just used the existing soil, starting using limbs and fallen tree’s. Then added rotten leafs and donkey manure, chicken manure,wet hay and more limbs and leaves. It is 6 foot long and 4 foot wide and 4 foot tall. Should I have added soil to the bottom before every thing else? Can I keep adding leaves and donkey manure or should I add some thing else? Thanks Ellen from Georgia

    • Hi Ellen – I’ve exhausted my thin knowledge of hugelkultur. To me, it seems any time you bury so much carbon in the ground you run the risk of running short on nitrogen. Add nitrogen (such as fish emulsion or blood meal) to offset all that buried carbon, or don’t see much nitrogen available for plants until the carbon is brought into balance, possibly years down the line. I don’t think the additional layer of soil you propose would affect this balance either way. Annette may have a more hugulkultur-friendly take on this.

      • Annette Cottrell

        Joshua hugelkultur is a method of storing carbon so that it DOESN’T all evaporate immediately. It is like a nutrient bank for your plants for the next 5-20 years. You might want to do some more reading on hugelkultur – it is a method of mimicking what nature is already doing perfectly, and has for time immemorial. Hot composting, on the other hand, is a fairly recent development in the scheme of things. I personally prefer to go with the time tested and earth friendly methods and that is what I am encouraging others do with my post here. :)

    • Annette Cottrell

      Hi Ellen – good for you! I have a hugelkultur post here: I am absolutely LOVING this method and if you do some googling you will find other blog posts on the internet with experiments where plants in hugelkulturs flourished without watering and control plots languished with watering.

      You don’t need to add dirt on the bottom – over time the mounds will melt away as your twigs, leaves, logs and other hummus decompose and become new soil, just as they do in nature. I think at this point you want to start adding some soil to the surface so that you can plant it! I’m excited for your HK beds!

  9. Annette,
    Have you seen the video “Back to Eden”? You can watch it free here..
    It is focused on gardening using almost exclusively wood chips for mulch, fertilizer and the composted chips for soil. I am moving toward the “slower composting. I also got a couple new blog entries recently. I mentioned you in my Garden show review. Take care.

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  12. “Compost Happens!”
    Annette, I could have stopped after the lazy-assed gardener comment because you had me there. I have never seen the need nor had the desire to turn a pile of compost or cut organic matter into tiny pieces. Let time and nature do the work, especially since they do it so much better than I. My only job is to keep piling the organic matter into my garden in one giant composting mulch layer.

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