Compost in Place

Our forest garden  in January, 2014 after nine months of work.
Our forest garden in January, 2014 after nine months of work.

People have asked about our lack of compost piles and bins at our new homestead. Here’s an overview of the composting method we’re using on our forest garden. Compost happens no matter what approach you use. We prefer no till gardening — get out of the way and let nature take care of things. Simply spread soil amendments on the garden as time and money allow and then let it break down naturally. The following article from Dave’s Garden explains the process in more detail.

“I have had the ugly compost bins made from wooden pallets, the worm bins, the big mounds and piles in the back yard, the huge round hog wire bins and so on. I’ve turned with pitchforks, concerned myself about heat, moisture and all the elements of cooking perfect compost and here is my personal and honest assessment of it all. Compost bins aren’t pretty and the textbook cooking compost method takes too much work, too much time and leaves me with too little product to ever make it worth my while.

After reading Lasagna gardening and seeing how the most perfect compost in nature is made by slow and gradual decomposition of leaves underneath a canopy of trees, my philosophy has shifted to a “feed the soil, not your compost bin” mentality. I compost in place and let the gradual decay of organic matter feed the teaming microorganisms and worms. The heat created in a compost pile is energy transferred and lost to breaking down the organic matter to it’s smallest form, instead of letting that energy transfer gradually and more usefully in your soil.

I’d much rather let nature do the work and I get all the rewards for it. All of the organic material that would have been added to a compost bin is now composted in place. Simple, easy, wonderful for the soil, great food for the beneficial organisms and your worms, easy on your back, less work, no worries about heating and right moisture contents. Compost happens whether you work real hard and baby your pile or lay it down on the soil and walk away. It happens better if you walk away, get out of the way and let nature do it’s job all by itself.

For those who still don’t want to believe… fine.. you keep that pile turned and fed while I go tend to my garden.”

Read more: Dave’s Garden
Owen: While compost bins can work great on a small scale, it doesn’t make sense when you scale up. In our case, we would need a giant space just for making compost if we did it the traditional way. Our forest garden is about 600 square meters (6,500 square feet). That’s not including the kitchen garden and all the trees on the other half of the property. Not only do we not have a large space available for making compost, it would be a massive amount of extra time and work turning and managing compost piles. We prefer to use our time more productively. Along the same lines, our worm bin is on hold as we assess the situation. (The worm bin was one of my pet projects that I wanted to build right away near the beginning of the project.) Now I’m glad we waited before building it. We’re already seeing worms appear naturally as we improve the soil. I saw a giant earthworm the other day that was over 12” long. Let’s hope these guys multiply like crazy!

4 thoughts on “Compost in Place”

  1. A compost heap is a necessary feature in the average garden. It provides a means of collecting the surprising amount of waste material which is gathered together during regular garden maintenance and it supplies the garden, or rather, the soil, with valuable organic matter. This organic matter fulfils several vital functions. It helps to improve the structure of the soil, especially the heavy clay types and the light sandy kinds. It encourages a vigorous root system and also acts as a sponge to retain moisture. Light, sandy soils tend to dry out rather badly and a high humus content is necessary to overcome this problem. Well-rotted composted vegetable waste can be used as a mulch around plants and between rows of vegetables where it will smother small annual weeds and prevent the surface soil from drying out badly.

  2. Composting in place is clearly the best way to make compost on a large scale. It’s the least amount of labor for the maximum amount of compost. Great system.

    That doesn’t mean that hot compost bins don’t have their place (not that Owen’s blog post suggested otherwise). In my opinion, hot compost bins are best used IN CONJUNCTION with composting in place.

    Hot compost bins are great at sanitizing potentially toxic organic matter. Anything that might contain disease causing bacteria or viruses would be best composted in a hot bin to kill any pathogens. Composting in place may not allow the compost to reach high enough temperatures to kill pathogens in any contaminated organic material.

    The most obvious example of this is Humanure. Any pathogens are quickly broken down in a hot compost bin.

    If any livestock become sick, it is often wise to hot compost their manure to prevent spreading disease to other livestock or wildlife, or contaminating water supplies or neighboring properties.

    Once the pathogens are broken down, then spread it out where appropriate.

    In my opinion, it’s smart to use both systems where appropriate. Compost in place the largest bulk of organic material that doesn’t contain potential pathogens to minimize labor, and hot compost bin the rest to sanitize anything potentially harmful.

    That said, composting in place is very underutilized and needs more “publicity.” As well as education about its limitations for sanitizing contaminated organics.

    Another good system for composting in place is “hugelkultur” which is essentially the same type of concept as described in Owen’s post… perhaps with some tweaks to the idea.

    There is also “Sheet Composting” which is essentially another name describing composting in place.

    Bill Mollison promotes what he calls, “chop and drop.”

    It’s all good. Each with some slightly different tweaks to various methods of composting in place.

    • Good points. One addition to our system that I didn’t mention is our compost bin for food scraps. This is a small scale thing outside our kitchen and so I didn’t bother mentioning it, but actually it is good to point this out. So we do compost our food scraps. What we don’t do is spend days and days gathering materials and building giant compost piles.


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