Happy worms, happy Earth - tips for permaculture and composting.

Written by Ryan Dickinson

Balance.

Creating balance in your garden means inviting in more life.

Too often in this day and age, we compromise our gardens and produce in the pursuit of eliminating pests. It's when we get back to basics though, that our plants really thrive.

Got a problem with insects? Try inviting in predator bugs by planting flowers (scented marigolds, lavender, nasturtium, petunias, etc). Over-run with snails? Consider free range chickens or ducks. Birds or rodents eating your crops? Make sanctuaries for local predatory birds in your garden, hang a bird feeder or build a scarecrow.

Now we've got pests covered, let's get down to the dirty work: composting, and our soil.

Compost is an essential food source for the microbes that make up our soil. It will turn up passively in gutters, drains, under trees and in our kitchens (some of the best compost I found was in a rain diversion drain in my driveway).

While it can turn up in the intersection of structures, plants and low sun aspects, we can also intentionally create compost heaps that allow us to turn all green waste from our garden, and all organic waste from our houses (paper, cardboard, kitchen scraps) into fertile soil. And when 60% or more of our collective waste is organic material, this technique becomes enormously important (and so much easier!).

There are a few fundamentals when it comes to compost making, so let's dive in.

  • Everything you put into your compost is better if shredded, chopped or torn up.
  • If your heap smells putrid, there is likely to be a poor balance of Nitrogen (green waste) to Carbon (brown waste). Surprisingly, compost should never smell overwhelming. 
  • Most of what comes from your kitchen, anything freshly cut in the garden, and manure, is Nitrogen (green waste). This wants to break down quickly.
  • Paper, cardboard, ash, woodchips, brown grass clippings, our bar wrappers and crushed bone are all sources of Carbon (brown waste). This will break down slowly by itself and will do so very slowly without any green assistance.
  • Your compost should typically have a higher ratio of brown to green. A ratio of roughly 20 to 30:1 is optimal. 
  • When building your heap, maintaining these ratios through layering increases the rate of decomposition. Layers of three to six inches (in a 1m x 1m heap) will leave you with a happy compost, and some incredible soil.

This ratio of Nitrogen and Carbon is half the process sorted, so now we meet heat and moisture.

  • Keeping a compost/soil thermometer in your heap allows you to keep an eye on temperature. The magic happens between 60C and 65C.
  • Ideally you want to be able to squeeze a handful of compost and get a drop or two of water. This means your compost has the right moisture levels.
  • Green material typically contains more moisture and can lead to over saturation. 
  • Your heap should be mostly closed to the elements. Wind and sun can dry it out, and rain can over saturate.
  • If there is too much airflow, your heap will dry out and cool off. Not enough airflow and your heap will putrefy. 
  • If there is too much moisture, you can counter this by adding some woodchips or cardboard. Additionally, leaving the lid/cover off on a warm day for a few hours can help too.

Another great method when perfecting your compost is to utilise the services of worms to break down all this material. Worms break down their own weight in material each day, so 1kg of worms will break down 1kg of organic material. Just remember, worms won't eat anything too acidic (onion or citrus peels) and trying to compost meat waste will attract rodents and flies unless buried deep.

This might all sound overwhelming at first, but once you've started composting, you will pick it up in no time. 

And your garden? It will thank you for it year after year after year.

From biodynamic and permaculture standpoints, people have been trialling and developing standards for compost generation for decades. Some great literature on the subject includes:

Common Sense Compost Making by May E. Bruce

Principals of Biodynamic Spray and Compost Preparations by Dr Manfred Klett

18 Day Compost video by Geoff Lawton

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