In this interview, environmental consultant and organic gardener Sally Pick unearths the secrets behind good compost.
Q: What is compost?
SP: In a nutshell, compost can be thought of as organic matter piled up in some sort of bin. When that organic matter decomposes, what is left behind is a nutrient-rich material – compost- that is great to add to your garden.
Q: Are there any tricks to making good compost?
SP: When you make compost, you are working to create an ideal eco-system for decomposers (bacteria, earthworms, centipedes, and fungi). Such a system requires a balance of nutrients and air.
To achieve this balance, you should aim to have your compost consist of layers of “browns” and “greens,” with two parts brown to one part green. Browns are materials that are rich in carbon, like dry leaves, wood chips, paper towels, newspaper, and sawdust. Greens, by contrast, are materials rich in nitrogen, like grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, and manure.
You should also strive to keep the compost moist. If you have the proper level of moisture, when you grab a handful of compost and squeeze it, the compost should act like a wrung-out sponge.
You should also make sure that the compost has enough air to decompose properly. Turning it occasionally with a pitchfork usually helps on this front. You can also add additional brown material if your compost doesn’t have enough air and starts to smell.
Q: How long does it take to produce “good” compost?
SP: The length of time it takes to produce compost depends on the speed at which it decomposes. If you actively attend to it, the process can move quickly—say 2-3 months. If left untouched, however, the compost could easily take a couple of years to achieve the desired quality.
Q: Are there any materials you cannot use in making compost?
SP: As a general rule, it’s best to keep meat, milk, cheese, dog and cat manure, and anything particularly oily out of your compost. Doing so will help to avoid attracting pests and slowing the decomposition process.
About Sally Pick:
Having worked in the environmental field for approximately 20 years, Sally now serves as a consultant through her firm, SJP Environmental Consulting, LLC, providing a range of services to organic and related businesses. Her experience includes writing articles, press releases, grant proposals, and policy documents, editing, managing projects, facilitating meetings and conference calls, organizing events, providing public education, outreach, and marketing, collaborating with diverse organizations, and community organizing. Areas of work currently relate to organic agriculture and fertilizers allowed in organic production, and she is developing a knowledge base in energy efficiency and renewable energy. In a past life chapter, she was known as a “compost queen,” providing educational programs on home and large scale composting.
More recently, she coordinated the development of the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) website, HowToGoOrganic.com, to help producers and processors find resources for transitioning to organic production. Currently, Sally serves as a staff liaison for OTA’s Farm Supplies Forum and co-chair of the Fertilizer Verification Task Force.
She conducts OTA’s annual organic cotton farm survey, along with a variety of other research and writing projects for OTA and other clients.
Sally holds a Master of Environmental Studies from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She lives in a charming small town in western Massachusetts, composts year-round (donning snowshoes for winter composing when need be) and is a passionate organic gardener.