Everybody's a Critic

Guest Review: Complete Compost Gardening Guide

The truth is we don’t have to stir our compost pile every day. Compost will
happen in a crack in the sidewalk. It will happen in a plastic bag. It will
happen in a trash can. It will happen under the old oak tree in a far corner of
your yard. It will even happen if you do nothing at all. Many gardeners forget
this and drive from one end of creation to the other looking for different
manures and things to put in their compost. Sensibly, Pleasant and Martin advise
to "work with what you have." Save the environment and the wear on your
automobile by focusing your efforts on things you generate at home. The authors
then take us on a meandering tour of the many ways compost can happen in your
garden, focusing not just on making "gardener’s gold," but leading us to places
in the compost universe we have not visited before–actually incorporating
compost heaps into a vegetable growing scheme. I only wish I had room to build a
pile big enough to plant pumpkins in like these two.
 
Some experienced gardeners apparently skip the composting literature
entirely. They are content to throw their garden debris in a pile and check on
it maybe every year or two. They are in no rush, and have no need for further
instruction. But others of us can’t afford such a leisurely approach. We have a
limited supply of ingredients, perhaps limited space, and we use our compost on
a regular basis. I collect leaves in the fall and save them for spring, by which
time I am desperate for grass to grow so I can cut it and start making compost.
I spread a little compost on my vegetable beds with each new planting, normally
three times a year. I hate running out of compost almost as much as I hate
buying compost. Therefore I spend more time managing it, and I like to know how
other gardeners manage theirs.
 
Some specific nits I have to pick with this and other composting
books:
 
Can someone please tell us how much nitrogen to expect in our
compost?
 
Pleasant and Martin describe compost as a nifty soil amendment "with
medicinal qualities." But precisely how to measure those qualities is anyone’s
guess. Kitchen scraps have nitrogen. Coffee grounds have nitrogen. Grass
clippings have nitrogen. So what happens to all that nitrogen when the initial
ingredients become compost? Why does compost always come with a qualifier:
It’s not fertilizer. The authors devote a breakout box to William
Binton, the ultimate composting guru at the Woods End Research Laboratory, and
even send away for one of his test kits to measure the ammonia and carbon
dioxide emitted by fresh compost. They also contact the manufacturer of those
little sticky labels attached to fresh fruit to find out if they are
compostable. (They are not. Called PLUs–price lookup stickers–they are made of a
water-resistant "polyethylene material.") I know nitrogen is a fleeting thing.
But I wish the authors had found a moment to send some of their compost to a lab
for an N-P-K analysis.
 
Is there life after the "30-to-1" ratio?
 
This refers to the amount of carbon to nitrogen in the ideal (meaning
"hot") compost pile and is repeated endlessly in the composting literature as a
kind of mantra, but often with no explanation whatsoever. It certainly does not
mean 30 pounds of fallen leaves to every 1 pound of grass clippings. In fact,
different compost materials have their own carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, wood
("brown") being very high in carbon, grass ("green") being high in nitrogen. To
their credit, Pleasant and Martin not only explain the ratio, but list many
common compost materials and their carbon-to-nitrogen values in a table, which
means you can get out your calculator and do some figuring while you are
composing your compost heap. But I have a feeling most gardeners would be
happier and less confused knowing how many leaves, how many grass clippings, how
many kitchen scraps to put in their pile. Compost is like soup: no two recipes
are alike, and everyone has her personal method. My advice: roughly equal parts
leaves and grass clippings (by weight) will give you nice, hot compost.
 
Do we really want to compost diseased plants and weed seeds?
 
These are not things to be spreading around the garden via finished compost .
Pleasant and Martin suggest quarantining these materials, then cooking them in
"hospital heaps" (they may have too many cutesy names and phrases in the book).
First, I wish I had space in my garden and blocks of time to set aside for sick
plants and seedy weeds. Second, their recipe for making such a heap 12 cubic
feet in size calls for 20 pounds of dog food (or equivalent animal feed or plant
meal) as an activator to heat up the pile. Our local rats would love that. I
suggest that in most cases it would be a lot less bother–and less risky–to
just put this stuff in the trash. But heck, if you have tons of
fusarium-infested tomato plants and no fears, be my guest.
 
Pleasant and Martin obviously have years of composting experience behind
them. Yet they make a lot of assertions for which I would like to see a
footnote. For instance, it seems to be common wisdom that compost makes healthy
plants and healthy plants resist disease. But in the authors’ world, compost
makes soil so chock-full of beneficial micro-organisms that disease organisms
never get a chance to damage your plants. I would love to think that’s what’s
happening when I stir compost into my soil. But I would feel even more assured
if the authors cited some scholarly research to back it up. Being a nut for
authoritativeness and endlessly curious about where information comes from, I
hoped for an extensive bibliography at the end of such a thick volume, but
found only a few familiar suggestions for "further reading."
 
Mostly, though, I feel a bit left out. I am an urban gardener where issues
of space, aesthetics and neighbors are a real concern. Pleasant and Martin seem
to have acres at their disposal and unlimited amounts of time to get creative
with their compost. Oh, they do stop long enough to mention composting in
garbage cans and small, manufactured devices. But mostly they seem content to
kick around wide-open spaces and farm-sized piles. Beginning composters will
feel a bit bewildered, I think, because the book takes a rather leisurely route
to an actual recipe for compost. The broad scope and depth of this work offers
something for everyone, but your eyes may glaze over if you don’t know exactly
what you’re looking for.
 
Some readers (or is it just me?) will find The Complete Compost
Gardening Guide
already a bit dated–a little creaky–as though the
latest wave of concern over melting polar ice caps passed it by. I
field questions almost daily from people not necessarily gardeners who
want to know how they can compost in their apartment, how they can keep
their kitchen scraps out of the waste stream, how they can start
composting just to give a little assist to an ailing planet. Composting
is not just for gardeners any more. People who will never garden at all
see composting as a necessary part of our future. I don’t detect that
sense of urgency at Storey Publishing. Thankfully, there are no leaf
blowers or two-stroke lawn mowers shrieking in the background here.
There’s even a section on how to properly handle a rake–a level of
environmental sensitivity that should be applauded. Still, the
overarching feeling is that for most composters time stopped somewhere
around 1958 and all is well in the garden. Perhaps more than a compost
gardening guide, what we need is a guide for all the world’s
non-gardeners.
 
Besides covering all the basics, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide is
full of valuable tips, tables and illustration. I am glad to know how to make a
cheap litter for carrying leaves across the yard, how to build a trap for fruit
flies and how to grow potatoes in a box. There are several different and
intriguing recipes for making compost, from high maintenance to virtually no
maintenance. Those more inclined to feed their kitchen scraps to worms will find
plenty to chew on. And I hope I am not the only reader who was captivated by the
detailed descriptions of different manures. Doesn’t everyone want to know the
important differences between alpaca droppings and chicken poop?
 
With so many grand photographs, breakout boxes and helpful drawings, 319
pages does not seem like too many.
This definitely is not a quick, how-to manual, but much thought has been
put into the design and pacing to make it a fun and informative read. I will keep
it alongside my other important compost references and treat it as a wise
friend.

Posted by on April 8, 2008 at 4:12 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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3 responses to “Guest Review: Complete Compost Gardening Guide

  1. This thoughtful and thorough review is great, but even better is getting a tasty sample of Ed’s passion for composting. On the down side, Deb Martin and I may have made another small mistake: failing to get Ed’s help with this mammoth book! Our not-so-secret agenda to get the whole world composting is thus already compromised. Ah, the bitter edge of writer’s remorse!

  2. MaryContrary says:

    Nice review — and glad to hear this isn’t another book with the “thou shalt” approach to composting. This is rotting, not rocket science, and it makes me crazy that so many well-meaning advocates over the years have completely scared people away from composting.

    While I haven’t persuaded my neighbors to start their own compost pile, they now regularly throw stuff in mine. In fact, a great inebriated neighborhood game in the summer is playing who can hit MaryContrary’s compost pile from the neighbor’s deck with a corn cob/watermelon rind/etc. Good neighbors make good compost.

    If anyone’s keeping count, put me in “throw it all in” school as far as diseased plant material goes, with a narrow exception for obviously virused stuff.

  3. commonweeder says:

    I’m not a scientific composter, but I would never put diseased materials in my compost. However, the point is made that everything rots. Eventually. As the Bard said, We ripe and ripe, til we rot and rot. I wish I had neighbors to throw stuff in my compost. They do allow me to harvest their autumn leaves.

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