Class Six-Compost

June 24, 2014

Author: Ian Whittington

Category: General News Stories from the Garden

For the past two months I’ve really been looking forward to finally being able to harvest. I’m not quite there yet, but I can finally see that it’s going to happen. Why? Because this week I hit an exciting milestone. I got my first tomato!

My First Tomato Plant 2

My first tomato for the season

But that wasn’t the only development. My beans are bigger and have started sending out vines. To make sure they don’t go crazy and crawl all over the ground I set up another teepee structure to give them something to climb on.

This week I built a new structure for my beans to climb up on

When my beans started sending out vines I finally knew for sure they were pole, not bush beans

A lot of my other plants have also gotten bigger, especially my cucumbers.

My cucumbers look like they're close to producing vines, I think

My cucumbers look like they’re close to producing vines, I think

Unfortunately though, some things are stunted. My peppers still look like they did the day I planted them. I’ve been told that part of the problem is that peppers really crave heat and humidity, so here’s hoping some good things come from my misery in the summer bake that’s sure start soon.

My peppers still look like they did the day I planted them

After two months my peppers still haven’t grown much

And then there’s my sage. It’s not doing so hot. My theory is that since its in a spot next to a leak in the irrigation system its been getting too much water. Honestly, seeing it struggle so much is really sad. I feel like I’m close to having to decide whether to pull the plug on it or not.

Old Sage Dying

Sadly the first sage I planted is close to death

But luckily regardless of how this plant fares I will still have sage later in the season. Neil, one of the board members with a community plot, offered to not only give me an extra sage but a few other plants as well. I now have some cilantro and nasturtium. He was so nice he even planted them for me to make sure they got watered on the day he came back with them. And he wasn’t the only one who helped me out this week. Amy, one of my classmates, gave me some extra tomato cages she wasn’t using.

New Sage and Nasturtium

My new nasturtium and sage

My new cilantro plants

My new cilantro plants

After one of the community plot members gave my neighbors some advice I decided to try out tomato cages instead of stakes

One of my newly installed tomato cages

With so many plants in my plot now, I’m going to have to make sure they get all the nutrients they’ll need. That’s where last week’s class comes in handy. Last class was all about composting.

Because Joe had a family emergency, Kristin, the NFI director, substituted. Instead of going to our usual spot right outside the garden, we ventured over to the compost pile to see first hand what they do.

But why does composting matter? Well for one thing, it’s a great way to divert organic matter away from landfills and back to the soil. When fruits and vegetables are harvested from their environments, their nutrients are taken away as well. By composting our food scraps and garden wastes we’re essentially returning some of what we’ve removed from the soil back to our farms and gardens.

But composting isn’t important just because it replenishes the earth. Adding compost to a garden will also:

  • Improve soil texture
  • Help with water retention
  • Keep diseases in check
  • Balance pH levels


There are two basic routes you can go with composting: cold and hot. Cold composting involves making piles of organic matter and leaving it alone for one to two years. Really, this is just letting nature do what it does best. In contrast, hot composting can take as little as six weeks by creating ideal conditions for bacteria, fungus, and insects to break down organic material as quickly as possible.

So how do you do this?

Well, you’ll need a few things first:

  • Organic Material
    • Ratio of 30: 1 Carbon to Nitrogen
    • Carbon=brown, dead organic material like leaves, straw, and cardboard
    • Nitrogen=green organic material like vegetable scraps, cut grass, coffee grounds, and other plant based material
  • Air
  • Water
  • Heat


Compost piles at Common Good City Farm. There's doesn't get hot enough to add weeds

Compost piles at Common Good City Farm. There’s doesn’t get hot enough to add weeds

The organic material is basically what will be transformed into compost. Really any kind of organic material can be used. At the NFI garden, we collect our weeds for the compost pile rather than throw them away. Common Good City Farm, which is the urban farm I volunteer at on Sundays, has bins set up right outside their grounds to collect food scraps from the community.

Being conscious of not letting anything go to waste, we’d also add our left over meat and bones to the pile. Right? After all, like I learned in the Lion King, when we die our bodies go back to the grass. Mufasa telling Simba this confused me as a child, but now I know how animal flesh decomposing is just nature’s way of recycling the elements.

While this is true and commonplace out in the wild, it’s not good for our purposes. Not only could pathogens be brought into a compost pile with decomposing animal matter, pests would also flock to the rotting flesh. Not to mention the horrible stench. With all this in mind, to have healthy compost you should never add:

  • Manure from meat-eating animals
    • Aged manure from plant-eating animals is fine to add for browns
  • Meats
  • Bones
  • Dairy
  • Fats and Oils
  • Inorganic material
  • Organic material treated with chemicals


The NFI compost pile after it has been flipped

The NFI compost pile after it has been flipped

So now that we know what kind of organic matter to add, there are a few other things needed as well. For instance, water. Adding water to a compost pile is important because the microbes that break the pile down need it to thrive. One way to see if you have enough water is to feel the pile. Ideally it should feel like a moist sponge. Too little or too much water could stop the decomposition process, thus leaving you with nothing but a big, chunky pile of garden waste.

Besides water, the microbes in a compost pile also need air. Without oxygen, anaerobic decomposition would begin in parts of the pile deprived of aeration. This in turn could lead to unwanted compounds such as ammonia and esters being extracted. One way to make sure the entire pile has access to air is by flipping it from one spot to the other, making sure the center becomes the outside of the new pile.

There are ways to get around this though if shoveling is too much work for you. One of my classmates mentioned how she was planning on buying a device that would mix up the compost with a simple turn of a crank. While volunteering at ECO City Farms in Edmonston, Maryland, I even saw PVC pipe used as a way to get air into the center.

With water and air in the mix, all the different microbes in the pile are able to proliferate. Eventually they should become so active that they produce heat. How much heat? Enough so that your compost gets between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is important because not only do these temperatures eliminate pathogens they also kill weed seeds.

My plot after six classes

My plot after six classes

This process is simple enough, right? If your answer is no, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the benefits of adding rich compost to your garden. Of course you could always go to the store and buy a bag. But what if you still want to make good use of your food scraps without all the work? For $8 a week, Compost Cab, a local DC company, will pick up your food waste and make compost themselves. But not only that, after six months they’ll give you back soil equivalent to what you gave them to compost.

If your answer is yes, just remember being able to compost well takes practice. It takes knowing what comes out of your garden and figuring out what you need to bring in. You also have to do some math. While the 30:1 Carbon to Nitrogen ration is a good tool to figure out how much organic matter you’ll need, you also have to consider the Carbon to Nitrogen ration of the different elements you’re adding. For instance, woodchips have a Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of 400:1. You’d need a lot of greens to counter all that carbon. But if you’re willing to put in the effort to figuring out what you need, the rewards will be well worth it. You may have to wait awhile before biting into that juicy tomato, but you’ll be glad you did.

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