Here on Pender Island, many people are looking to reduce the amount of garbage they produce, partially because many of us love nature and partially because we have no municipal garbage collection service. In our house it’s a bit of both. We have always composted and recycled where we could, but now that we have no garbage collection and plenty of space for compost bins, I’m turning it into an extreme sport. My primary motivations are to minimize the amount of waste that ends up in the trash and maximize the amount of fertility I return to the soil.
The typical composting advice that comes with your typical suburban black bin or urban green bin comes with a very restrictive list of rules about what can go into the bin and why. This may make sense if you are in an apartment and your compost is going to be collected by city workers who aren’t equipped to handle the gross stuff. If you are a suburban gardener who is looking for fast and easy compost, then keeping things like meat scraps out will help you avoid dealing with rats, and turning your compost regularly does tend to help it decompose faster.
However, like most types of systems, there are really very few hard-and-fast rules to setting up a compost system. If you’re aging your own compost, these guidelines make sense if your goal is to produce a moderate amount of compost quickly for a small garden. That’s not my goal, so (spoiler) I’m not following them.
There is a small but growing movement of people who are starting to experiment with alternate methods of composting and pushing the limits on what can be composted in the systems that we already have. Some of these folks have always been around, but with the recent resurgence of interest in self-sufficiency, more people are starting to give it a try, if for no other reason than to give their garden a much-needed boost.
Bruce Darrell of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Tipperary is the producer of the RED Gardens series, in which he grows several different types of food garden (such as the no-dig and intensive methods) to try to compare their relative yields as well as the number of hours required to maintain them. One of his other experiments, the “No Rules Compost“, is how he manages to generate enough compost to maintain the half-dozen or so gardens that he manages. The “No Rules Compost” actually has one rule: if it was recently alive, it can go in the bin, and “recent” is relative (as things like paper are OK). He has been using this method for several growing seasons now and has reported no issue with crop failure or disease, only an issue with rats, and he makes a strong case for why those rats would be more difficult to deal with if they were not attracted to his compost, since they’re attracted to his garden regardless and he can rig up his bin to serve as a massive rat trap. At this point, his pest management strategy actively relies on attracting rats to the bin.
Bruce is not alone in this “anything goes” composting strategy; Extreme Composting by permaculturist David the Good offers a similar perspective on what can be composted, along with detailed tips and ideas on how to avoid some of the work and the “ick” factor. For example, if you can’t deal with the idea of pests getting into your old meat scraps, you can always just dig a hole and bury it. If buried correctly this will mask the smell from both you and the rats, so they don’t even know it’s there. Maybe this won’t work if you live in an area with other pests, or a much worse rat problem (as rats can dig a bit), but it works for David the Good and it also works for me — though with my shallow Gulf Island soil, I can never dig as deep as I’d like and top off each hole with a piece of old board and a couple rocks to weigh it down. The beautiful thing about composting is that it’s actually very simple and versatile, so if this doesn’t work for you, there’s always something else you can try.
Vermiculture (or worm binning) is another form of composting where you’re repeatedly told not to put meat in the bin, but again, if you have a large and healthy worm bin, there is no issue in feeding them meat scraps in moderation. They will clean the bones off for you, at which point you can dry them and grind them up for bone meal in the garden. Free bone meal sounds like a good deal to me.
Humanure is another intriguing development in the world of extreme composting and while I’m not sure I’m quite ready to take that leap myself, I can’t deny that every septic field I’ve looked at in the middle of a dry BC summer has been yellow-brown with bright green grass where the septic is laid.
So… for the past year, my partner and I have been going the “compost (almost) everything” route. When we moved in around this time last year, there was 1 black bin with a small amount of uncomposted material on the bottom. A year later we had two entirely filled black bins plus an overflow compost pile in the back yard. Surprisingly to me, despite following none of the rules, the bottom two feet of bin 1 was filled with rich, black, nearly-finished compost. The only uncomposted material in the bottom of this bin were some cedar roots, so in the future my “anything goes” composting will be an “anything goes but the cedar” bin.
This past week, rather than build or buy more bins to contain more compost, I sorted out our yard waste “burn pile” (which we have never burned) into cedar branches and everything else, which included a bunch of weeds, a couple small pine trees, and woody clippings from a variety of different bushes and trees. I dug a shallow trench in the backyard and layered the big pieces first, then the little pieces, then the compost, so that the new layers would fall and fill down into the gaps of the previous layers. Then I covered the whole mess with a layer of topsoil and seeded it with a bee and butterfly wildflower mix. The end result is a mini-hugelkultur bed that will hide our unsightly decomposables while they work, and hopefully attract pollinators into our garden. The wildflower roots should help prevent the pile from eroding away down the slope of our backyard.
And of course, we get to use our compost bins again!