In Food, Gardening, Homsteading, Soil & Compost, Urban Permaculture

Work is a Failure in Design – it’s a motto I use again and again, and it’s especially true when you look at composting. The common problems that gardeners struggle with are usually red flags, signalling problems in design. Let’s take a look at some of the ways a little strategic planning can make successful composting effortless. 


#1. Out of Sight = Out of Reach

We inherited three compost bays with our farm, and while they were conveniently close to the garden, it was a royal pain to come out and manage them. This is your first sign of trouble: you know your compost is too far away if everyone is trying to avoid taking the food waste out to the bin.

The solution? Simple: move your compost closer to the house. No muddy boots, no long treks in cold and rain, no excuses!


#2. That Smell Is Telling You Something

Now, one of the reasons why people say they don’t want their compost close to their house is because it smells bad. Well, stinky compost is a symptom that tells you two things: first, your bin is probably too far away. Second, you’ve got a problem with your compost-making process.

compost heap

The solution, again, is to bring your compost bin closer, so if it starts to smell, you’re forced to pay attention, figure it out, and adjust your process. A healthy compost pile shouldn’t stink!

Here’s the key. Good compost depends on a balance between two basic ingredients: nitrogen (wet green materials like food scraps and fresh garden clippings) and carbon (dry, brown organic matter like dead leaves, straw, or wood mulch). A smelly pile means you have too much nitrogen and not enough carbon. Most people don’t realize that a compost pile should be 50 to 70 percent carbon by mass.

Here we delve into diagnosing a problematic compost pile for its carbon/nitrogen ratio and temperature:


#3. Become a Compost Nutritionist

When you’re making a compost pile, you’re basically creating a recipe. It’s like making a cake: you need to get the ingredients in the right proportions, so the microbes inside the pile can do their work.

I recommend a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 50:1 – that’s the amount of carbon in the pile, relative to the amount of nitrogen. Now, a lot of the books on composting advise a 30:1 ratio – so why am I saying 50:1 is better?

Well, it’s all about the way we treat our soil. When you roto-till or disturb the soil, the first thing that disappears is the mycelium, or fungi, so most of your soil winds up with a fungal deficiency that needs to be corrected. You want to make sure your compost has the right ingredients, setting up the conditions for fungi to thrive. 

You see, fungus as a microorganism doesn’t start to show up in the pile until six months to a year after the compost has gone through its initial heating cycle and cooled down. That’s why I recommend the 50:1 carbon-nitrogen ratio: to have enough carbon in there to feed the fungi at that point.

So, to come back to the story of our neglected compost bays, I had a ready-made solution: we’d just recently shredded a whole bunch of trees into wood mulch, which has between 300-500 units of carbon for every unit of nitrogen. So it was pretty carbon rich, and helped to create the conditions for a fungally-dominant compost.

Learn more about setting up conditions for fungal dominance in a large compost pile here:


#4. Keep All Your Ingredients Handy

Here’s another strategy to simplify your compost-making. When you’re making a cake, you want all your ingredients to be close by — you wouldn’t put your flour in the kitchen, your sugar in the garage and your eggs upstairs, right? It’s the same principle here. You want all of your components for making compost ready to hand, preventing unnecessary step-and-fetch.

So, in reworking our old compost bays, I moved that big pile of wood mulch into the centre bay. That way, when we came out to dump a bucket of food scraps into the active compost bay, we could easily add an equivalent amount of wood mulch at the same time to maintain the balance.

#5. Use the Static Approach: No More Turning, Turning, Turning

In another post (link), we looked at active compost piles, similar to the Berkeley “hot composting” method. Those give you compost very fast, within 17 to 21 days, though they’ll still need to age. Mind you, a lot of work is involved in collecting the materials to build your pile in one day, and then you need to flip it every day or every two days based upon temperature.

See Carmen Lamoureux explain the difference between active and static (passive) compost piles here:


But I’m a big fan of static piles, where you set them up and let them go through a full compost cycle without turning them. The key here is to make sure that the pile is close enough to the house, with the ingredients close at hand, so you can easily maintain the right ratios as you add to the pile, incrementally creating this layered static system.

According to composting expert Joseph Jenkins, who wrote The Humanure Handbook, these static systems are actually as effective as the Berkeley method, and they take a lot less labour! You just have to wait a little bit longer for them, which is fine. As long as you have a system in place producing compost continuously, you can also have piles working more slowly for next season’s yield.

Listen in while we talk about how adding carbon is the difference between a composting toilet and an outhouse here (content begins at 5:43):


#6. Put Chickens to Work

chicken on compost heap

I learned this technique from Geoff Lawton, and it’s an easy, effective way to manage your compost: simply give your chickens access to the compost pile! They do the labour of scratching and pecking and turning it over, and their droppings in the compost help to balance the carbon and nitrogen ratio. With minimal help from you, they produce a really beautiful compost.

Learn more about the permaculture concept of needs and yields, using chickens and a compost heap, here:


Long Story Short? Compost Happens!

Here’s the bottom line: As long as you’re giving your compost pile the right ingredients and setting up the right conditions for the microbes and fungi to thrive, nature will take care of the rest. I hope these tips will help you to integrate your compost system strategically with your everyday routine, so it can serve you, instead of the other way round!

Further questions? Learn more about composting here:

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