Even when you don't follow the rules, compost happens

There are rules for making compost in the garden, but even if you don't follow them, you'll still end up with compost.

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Does anyone really compost by the book? You know, put down a green layer, a brown layer, a green layer, and so on in a bin that measures approximately 4 by 4 by 4 feet. Then turn, turn, turn, to quote Ecclesiastes by way of Pete Seeger.

Who gets garden waste in the correct three parts brown to one part green proportions? Or stores waste until there are the right amounts of brown to green?

Who has time chop every bit of refuse or to turn a pile — which is a near-impossible job — every week? Or regularly check the pile’s internal temperature to make sure it has reached the ideal temperature of 160 degrees F.?

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I confess: I don’t worry about microbial balance and the bioavailability of carbon and nitrogen. I just toss stuff in bins and wait. I don’t make proper 3:1 layers. I don’t turn the piles. I don’t add activators or water. And I don’t get compost in 30 days.

Composting is defined as a method “to accelerate the natural decay process,” so my laissez-faire approach barely qualifies. My waiting time for finished compost is several years. At the moment I have six large bins going, a privilege that comes with living on 13 acres. If the piles smell — and they sometimes do when there is too much nitrogen-rich green matter — no one except my husband complains.

Fences may or may not make good neighbors, but stinky compost piles definitely do not. Gardeners living on postcard-size properties should consider using an enclosed container rather than an open bin for their composting. Kermit the Frog was right: It’s not easy being green.

Made from recycled plastic or metal, closed composters, many of which rotate with the flick of the wrist, have names like “Spin Daddy” and “Earth Maker.” They are widely available at garden centers and from online vendors.

The bad news is that most are not cheap, and that they rarely, despite the testimonials, produce compost in three weeks.

Gardeners who follow all the rules, and I’m still not convinced there are such people, are members of the “hot” composting club. Count me among the “cold” composters, gardeners who let psychrophilic microorganisms, earthworms, and insects do most of the work [PDF]. (You should be aware, though, that in addition to being slow, cold composting may not decompose everything, nor will it sterilize every weed seed.)

While cold composting is not labor intensive, I do add an occasional shovelful of dirt and the night crawlers left over after my son visits. This fall, my neighbor Paul Miller delivered several loads of nitrogen-rich aquatic weeds he collected from his beach, and they went into my bins.

“Bins,” to be honest, is an exaggeration. My current compost piles are contained by free-standing circles of heavy sheep wire and a few stakes. These containers, formally known as “wire-mesh holding units,” are easy to create and inexpensive. There is plenty of how-to information on the web if you want to build a more permanent bin, including models that are downright elegant.

Cold or hot, three years or three weeks, composting is one of those win-win propositions that business executives like to talk about. It keeps organic waste out of landfills, and it creates nutrient-rich organic matter that we can use to improve the soil.

In this case, win-win is more than jargon.

Karan Davis Cutler, a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist, is the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. She will be blogging regularly for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: To read more posts by Karan, see our blog archive. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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