Compost Safety and Leguminous Rhythms

It’s November in Indiana, and I’m raising little bean plants in my guest room. They’re not an early start for next spring’s garden, but a test of some new compost. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t make enough compost this year to nourish the major garden expansion I’m working on, so I purchased a truckload of locally made compost from a nearby lawn and garden supply shop to supplement what I did make.

Other people’s compost is a little bit suspect these days due to the emergence of a new class of herbicides which persist in soil, in plant material, and in animal manure for up to five years after application. These herbicides are sometimes used on conventionally grown grain crops and grazing pastures, so they can wind up in your organic garden through compost, straw, hay, grass clippings, or manure.

Not only do I try to avoid ingesting herbicides as a personal health preference, and not only do I endeavor to manage my farm organically for myriad reasons, but the whole point of herbicides is to kill plants, so nobody wants them in their garden harming their flowers and veggies for the next several years.

Since these chemicals have such a long active life, sometimes persistent herbicides can contaminate a batch of compost by accident if somebody fed their horse something that once grew in a field that was once sprayed and then the manure from that horse is composted, or if contaminated straw or hay was added directly to the compost pile. It’s difficult if not impossible to verify all the inputs all the way to their origin if you’re a business or a municipality who takes in other people’s compostables and makes large quantities of black gold for a whole community. The best way I’ve found to make sure that not-homemade compost is safe is to test it before spreading it on the garden.

Ergo, I have six pots of Phaseolus vulgaris in my guest room right now, and we’re learning a lot about each other. Most interestingly, I learned that they “sleep” every night. They actually fold up their leaves into a relaxed-looking posture and spend the night that way before stretching out for the sun again the next morning. This botanical process is called nyctinasty. According to Wikipedia, “Nyctinastic movements are associated with diurnal light and temperature changes and controlled by the circadian clock.” Not all plants have nyctinastic movements, but some plants do, including beans. I plan to research more about nyctinasty, but I couldn’t wait to share these photos and observations with you all. See below for more info.

So far, all my beans look vigorous and healthy, and all signs point to safe, excellent compost. I’ll know for sure in another week, and then I can proceed with my garden expansion at full speed.

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The Foundation of Our Future

Gardening has enjoyed increased popularity in recent months. Perhaps because we’re all spending more time in our homes and our yards due to shelter in place rules. Perhaps because many of us have lost our incomes due to economic shutdowns and are trying to reduce our food costs. Perhaps because it’s great therapy during stressful times. Whatever your reason for beginning a garden, welcome to the pastime. I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to succeed, which is why I’m about to share the #1 most important garden success tip I know: grow compost. Compost is the absolute lifeblood, and the foundation of a healthy organic garden. If you have some food scraps and a few spare minutes per day, you can do this. And if you do, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful rich soil that will help your garden succeed. It’s one of nature’s great miracles.

What is compost? It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that you can make from your unwanted food scraps. Soil loves it, worms love it, and plants love it. To start, you’ll need materials from two categories: “greens” and “browns”. Greens are fresh, moist plant products that could include food scraps, grass clippings, certain manures, and weeds. Browns are dried, dead things like fallen autumn leaves, wood chips, or paper. People have done research on creating the ideal balanced compost pile and there is plenty of literature available on that topic. I don’t measure my compost very carefully though. I just shoot for roughly twice as much brown material as green. If you have too much brown material, the compost process will be very slow. If you have too much green material, the compost will smell and might get very hot. If that happens, just adjust as necessary and keep composting. It will all work out.

Once you have some materials, you’ll need a place to put them. This can be as simple as an open pile in the back yard with no structure whatsoever, or as fancy as a compost tumbler. I’ve tried a number of different composting systems, and they all produce the same compost. The difference is mainly in how tidy they look, and how much effort is required to produce the compost.

Mantis ComposTumbler Compost Tumbler

The compost tumbler pictured to the right of this paragraph (made by Mantis) is the pièce de résistance of my compost system. I watched Craigslist for years, waiting for it to be listed there at an affordable price. The hand crank design makes it very easy to turn the compost every day. By turning the compost every day, and keeping it moist, compost is finished in just a few weeks.

Wire Bins for Compost Overflow
Wire Bins holding compostable materials that don’t fit in my tumbler. They look messy, but they do the job!

Between actively managed batches of compost in the tumbler, I store compostable materials in these wire bins as overflow. If I was constantly adding new materials to the tumbler, then the materials added later in the cycle wouldn’t be finished composting at the same time as the materials added in the beginning, meaning that there would always be some whole banana peels in my compost. So I use these wire bins to store the materials in waiting. You can see from the photo that I have quite a backlog of compostables, but I plan to completely catch up now that I’m a full time farmer (aka unemployed…)! Even if I didn’t have the tumbler, I could finish these compostables just as quickly by turning them every day with a pitch fork. But, that would take more free time than I have. Or, I could turn them less often, and they would turn into compost over a longer period of time (maybe several months). Or, I could not turn them at all, and they would still become compost after a few years! Moisture is necessary to the composting process though, so try to water your compost pile during periods of drought. Once per week is enough. It should be moist like your garden soil, but not soggy.

You’ll know your compost is finished with it reduces to at least half its original size, no longer feels hot to the touch, and looks like rich black soil. It should not contain any large recognizable chunks of banana. It should smell neutral and earthy.

Ideas for “Greens” To Use In Your Compost:

  • Vegetable peels
  • Used Coffee Grounds
  • Apple cores
  • Banana Peels
  • Leftovers nobody wants to eat
  • That parsley you bought with good intentions but it got all wilty and gross in the back of your crisper
  • Moldy bread
  • Livestock manure, or manure from certain herbivorous pets (do your own research on this, not all manures are safe to add)
  • Weeds you pulled from your garden (but be sure not to include their seeds)
  • Grass clippings

Browns:

  • Unbleached Napkins
  • Unbleached Coffee Filters
  • Unbleached Paper
  • Fallen autumn leaves (preferably shredded)
  • Straw
  • Wood Chips (these will take a long time to break down, delaying your compost, but they do work)

Items Generally Recommended Not To Compost:

  • Plastic-looking items that say “compostable” on them. These are only compostable if they’re heated first. Industrial composting facilities can handle these types of items, but it’s difficult to manage at home.
  • Items that are bleached or dyed. Though I add these to my compost anyway, as long as they make up a tiny percentage of total compost.
  • Meat or dairy products. These products can make your compost smell, and possibly attract animals to your compost pile. However, I add them anyway, because I don’t care about those consequences.
  • Foods that are very salty or oily. Again, I do this anyway as long as those items constitute a tiny percentage of my total compost. If there’s too much salt in the compost it can harm plants, and oil takes a long time to fully break down. In tiny amounts, I don’t notice any problems.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.