Compost Rebuttal

Kelly’s secret compost pile.

I found out via a blog post last week that Kelly had secretly constructed a compost pile to deal with a surplus of kitchen scraps. She knew I’d be unhappy with this due to my anal retentive approach to composting.

So why am I unhappy with this pile? The reason is simple: it’s too small and will never generate enough heat to:

  • Kill weed seeds.
  • Kill human and plant pathogens.
  • Kill root nematodes.

Don’t just believe me, listen to soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham in this youtube video:

Ingham’s work is controversial, but I believe time will prove her ideas correct. To grow fussy plants like vegetables we need to introduce beneficial microorganisms and fungi into the soil via well made compost. To make that compost we need to monitor the pile’s temperature carefully (it should be between 55ยบC and 65ยบC for at least three days according to Ingham). The pile also needs oxygen, provided by introducing loose materials like straw and through periodic turning. A compost pile needs water too. It’s not difficult to achieve the conditions Ingham specifies. You just need enough mass combined with the use of a compost thermometer to figure out when to turn the pile.ย 

O.K., so now I’m headed out into the garden to combine that tiny and ugly tire pile to the new pile I’m building.

For more information on Ingham’s work read, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Just rebutting the rebuttal. I don’t disagree with anything Erik says above, and Ingham’s work is fascinating.ย  But to be clear about my post, the “sooper seekrit” pile was not about producing compost, it was about disposing of waste. Indeed, such a small pile does not have the mass to heat up enough to burn off nasties or to decompose very quickly, but it suited my needs at the time. Homemade compost is a wonderous thing. It’s vital to organic gardening, and moreover it’s really satisfying to take the waste products from your kitchen and garden and make them into something which will build your soil. You get to keep all that wealth close at hand. However, if you don’t want or need compost for your garden, but you don’t want to send green scraps to the landfill, you can return it to the earth in more casual ways, like the sooper seekrit pile.

Leave a comment


  1. “To make that compost we need to monitor the pile’s temperature carefully”

    … I do not know anyone who takes their composts temperature … I certainly don’t. But I do know a lot of people who make compost, successfully, without treating it like a sick baby, and grow vegetables with it.

    Maybe that is the way to produce the best compost evar, but producing adequate compost with minimal effort is much more to my liking.

  2. @Paige:

    Compost is like any other of these old home arts: you can approach it in different ways. Some people knit from patterns, others make it up as they go. Some people just mix flour and water in a bowl and throw it in the oven when it seems to have risen enough. Other people make bread making an absolute science. It’s all about what gets your groove on.

  3. …but you’re using it in your new pile. So, looks like Kelly managed to get all those precious kitchen scraps out of the landfill and into your fancy shmancy hot composting after all!

  4. I don’t know if our compost pile ever gets hot enough to kill anything, but it does turn to compost. I hope we are able to still use it for the veggie beds.

  5. I’m too lazy to deal with taking my compost pile’s temperature. I turn it occasionally but not obsessively.

    I think the mini-pile was a great solution to avoid throwing away organic waste. In fact, I don’t want to add dog droppings to the landfill either so I’ve got a huge homemade doggie dooley buried in my front yard!

  6. Why not have two piles- Erik can have his and then try a worm compost pile to use during down times. I do agree with Eric that the tires don’t allow enough oxygen in, but that can be remedied. We used to compost only with worms and it was so easy. You just need to keep the proper moisture. This is a great learning tool for all of us. Thanks for sharing.

  7. @meemsync: I’m sure it’s fine. If you’re just composting veg and yard scraps, you don’t have anything to worry about.

    There’s actually discussion amongst the compost obsessives re: cool compost vs. hot compost. Seems cooler composting might retain more helpful bacteria than hotter systems.

  8. Certainly! I am also a crocheter who doesn’t use patterns in addition to being a free-wheeling compost rebel. I do require a recipe for baking, though I have my usual bread memorized so it may seem that I am flying by the seat of my pants. Whatever composting methods make you want to actually compost – that’s the important thing. I try to take the path of moderation, myself.

  9. It seems like Kelly had to start somewhere. Why not start with what she had? Maybe someone needs to explain to me how to start large and hot. I have a wooden box (for raised bed)that is 4’x4’where I have thrown compostable food and leaves into for about 8 months. Maybe I will grow tomatoes and apple trees and weeds if the seeds are burned to smithereens. I don’t know. It is all so confusing to me. I just let it rot.

  10. Because it doesn’t seem like a loving thing to do, and unnecessary. What is wrong with someone doing such a small thing in her own fashion?

    I don’t mean to be unkind, but putting one’s personal compost philosophy ahead of one’s wife seems unkind and controlling. Again, not my business at all, but it seems unnecessary to force the issue in such a way.

  11. @Kris: I’m so sorry you feel that way–that wasn’t the intention of these posts, and that’s certainly not our lived reality within the house.

    I don’t know if you’re a new reader or not, but one thing Erik and I do in this blog, in our books and in our talks is sometimes disagree on certain subjects–the point being is that there is no one right way to do anything, and by highlighting our differences, we highlight that fact. We want to free people up from looking for “the one right way” to do things and instead encourage them to trust their instincts.

    Perhaps Erik’s rebuttal post reads as overly stern. Your is not the only negative comment we’ve received on it, so obviously the tone not working.

    You’ll have to forgive us. It’s been an exhausting week or so for us, and we’ve both got bad colds. I think our funny-o-meters are broken.

    I’ll just say thank you for looking out for me, but honestly I’m not oppressed by Erik’s opinions. That’s just not how our relationship works. I made the sooper seekrit pile to annoy him, and I posted about it to tease him for being such a compost wonk. If that’s backfired, and he looks like a bad guy, I’m very, very sorry.

    He’s out helping someone tonight so can’t speak for himself.

  12. I personally love it when you two bicker in cyberspace. So cute.
    But also so real. There’s not enough punk married couple models out there.
    BTW, I almost never comment. Y’all get plenty, I’m sure you have better things to do than sit around and read my blather about your blather, but I have been reading your blog for years now, and I really love you guys. Especially your work against the Failure Fear Factor. So useful when people want to take this stuff beyond the coffee table.

  13. i just loved this post! i am new to your blog and am not familiar with your style, but i “got” this post….with a good laugh, and different ways of seeing something. thank-you! i’m holding you both in my good thoughts, and although this past week must have been difficult for you, i am so grateful i found my way here in the uproar….my blessing. right now i have access to 100 rural acres, and will be buying your book for ideas for some small-scale projects.

  14. I myself am a big “chop and drop” mulcher, which is permaculture-ese for a lazy dude who just chucks vegetable scraps on the ground, scuffs some fallen leaves over them (I have a forest garden) and lets the soil bacteria and fungi do the dirty work. My family members have started doing the same thing, but somewhere along the line the “chop” disappeared, and I have found whole leeks just sitting on the ground in my garden. The soil is fairly active, though, and 2009’s Christmas tree which was sawed up and scattered has already completely disappeared into the ground.

  15. My humor muse may have fled me when I wrote this post this afternoon leaving a collection of cold, hard semi-scientific factoids. Kelly through down the compost gauntlet with her small tire pile in part to get rid of the compost that was piling up on the kitchen counter and also to prompt a humorous internet exchange. She had the excellent idea, after reading my post that I should have translated it into LOL cat-speak for proper comic effect. That being said, I stand behind the need to pay some attention to compost intended for a vegetable garden. The way I see it, if you get the compost right the garden will kind of grow itself. More work on the compost end, less work on the growing end–fewer pests and diseases, for one thing. It’s all about the soil and compost is the cornerstone of soil stewardship. If only blog posts could be composted.

  16. I love the style of bantering.. It allows people to see the argument within familial situations and i do not mean in a bad way..and see both sides and then the resolution… manthing and i have the same sort of relationship and it wigs people out in real life too.. one woman we have known for years and should know better to this days says “if yall gonna fight, let me leave”… its simply how we interact and we usually end up with a compromise of sorts of what i think n what he thinks..

  17. I keep the compost in the chicken’s run. They do all the work of breaking it down into tiny bits and turning it over. When that area fills up, I move it to another area and let it sit for months, where it turns into gorgeous, loose earth. Almost no work for me except for the hauling. Does my method meet Mr. Homegrown’s high standards? BTW, I got the humor ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. you two crack me up! the couple that argues composting together, stays together!! ๐Ÿ™‚


  19. I got the bantering. Still, how do you start compost large and hot? Maybe you have to collect it awhile? I still just let it rot. It’s all I am capable of doing. Right now, the chickens work everything over, then they scratch it through the chain link pen. I think the compost is outside in piles. I am dead serious about the two questions in this comment. And, yes, I was laughing about the secret compost pile. It is sort of like I kept it a secret that I drove into the corner of the house and dented the house and car…that kind of secret…

  20. Thanks everyone for the reassurance. The last thing we’d like to be perceived as these days is patriarchal. ahem.

    Chickens are fantastic compost helpers! We throw a ton of fresh stuff in our ladies’ run and whatever they don’t eat mixes with the straw and breaks down. We “harvest” the floor of their run about once a year. And Homegrown Neighbor keeps a bin in her run. Her hens keep themselves busy digging through it. Chicken composting is definitely another type of of casual composting.

    Erik has been tasked with answering questions about hot compost. So stay tuned.

  21. First off, just so everyone has a mental picture of what I look like when I’m laying down compost rules in a blog post you can see it here. But, seriously, I apologize if I came off as sanctimonious. Maybe I should make that image my avatar on this blog, for the occasions when the humor fails to translate well into type.

    So how do I get my compost into the temperature range Ingham talks about–I save and scavenge materials until I can build a cubic yard pile. I combine half (by volume) nitrogen containing materials with carbon materials. Pretty simple. The problem is what to do with the trickle of kitchen scraps that occurs daily–that we’re still working on, but Kelly’s going to build a larger worm bin.

    I have to, respectfully, disagree with commentators on the use of black containers to create heat. It’s the microorganisms that generate the heat that kills off the bad stuff–weed seeds and nematodes, not solar heat. But, whatever works for you.

  22. I’m too lazy to deal with compost. We just throw all of our scraps to the chickens and goats and let them deal with it. They enjoy turning it daily for us.

  23. It was an interesting post, and as a newbie to your blog id just like to add that i too thought it was friendly banter, no need to change the tone. contructive critic is always useful if only to make you look at things from a different perspective. Ive now added compost to the list of things i need to skill myself on… (oh im such a compost heap myself, ive got books and i will read them when i need too….;)

  24. But I thought your book said turning and other labor/time-intensive techniques were unnecessary??!?! ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. Strom,

    My thinking has evolved a bit since the first book. That being said, if you have a good balance of materials from the start you might not have to turn it.

  26. I’ll watch the video and do some reading, and then go turn my compost pile. Where’s a good place to buy a compost temp gauge?

  27. Living in the dry desert, and not wanting to attract any more javelina or raccoons or skunks or rats than are already around, I had to have some kind of well secured compost bin. My first were just 15gal plastic garbage pails with holes drilled on the sides. They didn’t get turned, but they did produce compost eventually. Now have two rotating bins. Collect kitchen waste from descriminating neighbors. Lots of good compost for the veggie gardens. Not hot enough to kill seeds, had lots of tomato and squash volunteers in the flower garden one year. So now, it comes out of the bins and back into those garbage cans for awhile where they either get hot, or the seeds sprout and then die. Whichever, it works. No thermometers involved.

  28. @Nick: Thanks for the offer–but we got worms. We’re looking to build some sort of worm palace for them to increase their role. This worm tower business you link to is fascinating!

  29. personally, i’m an intuitive casual composter who usually implements compost rules. i am rigid about sending garbage to the landfill however. i totally understand mrs.(sorry mr.) i do also love the banter and am not worried about it. luuuucy!

  30. I built a small solar composter for my suburban apartment backyard and have had plenty of success. When I built a second for a family friend I documented the whole build.
    It’s been wonderful, even with a lack of temperature monitoring or input control. It’s even powerful enough to compost the forbidden meat and dairy, despite the small size.

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