Compost Magic for the Medicinal Herb Garden
Written and Photographed by Mary Plantwalker
Can you believe that you have the ability to turn garbage into beautiful soil? Well, with the help of millions of microorganisms, you can turn your waste into an incredibly useful material. Composting can be a magical art of transforming garbage into black gold. How sweet is that? Being a soil-builder instead of a landfill-contributor is righteous work for the times! Be a Green Magician! Both your herbs and the earth will thank you.
Composting is taking the leftover vegetable and plant matter from your kitchen and yard and giving it an aerobic environment where it can decay and turn itself back into the medium that grew it in the first place—soil! Composting can be as simple as making a pile of refuse and doing nothing, or adding to it scientifically in layers of 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1-part nitrogen. It can be small enough to fit in a Rubbermaid tub or so big that it takes up hundreds of yards.
This article is for the home gardener to help you decide exactly where you want to land on the spectrum of compost perfection, and offers a folk method for outdoor “add-as-you-go” composting that gives you the confidence to do it yourself.1
Composting is definitely not as convenient as just throwing your waste into the trash, so why make the extra effort? Here are some reasons that may inspire you:
- Methane. It’s a gas that we’re currently in abundance of on the planet, and it’s warming us up globally at an alarming rate. Methane is partly produced by biodegradable waste products like unused food and leaves that get sent to the landfill with no means of carbon sequestration. Composting reduces methane emissions significantly.
- Your garbage will be less smelly and attract fewer insects. Plus, your garbage volume will shrink, which means you’ll be using fewer plastic bags while lessening your contribution to the landfill.
- Compost is much safer and healthier for you and the planet than working with synthetic fertilizers.
- You can feed your very own unwanted food and yard waste back to your beloved garden of herbs, making them even more medicinal!
- And if you’d like to read more about the benefits of composting, the EPA has a detailed page about how both large and small-scale composting can shift the environmental impact of agriculture.
The first thing to do is determine if you’re going to do an indoor or outdoor compost pile, then ask how involved you want to be with your method. Do you want to get soil in return, or are you composting solely to help lessen your footprint on the planet? You may want to read this article to simply get inspired to return your kitchen waste back to the earth before actually committing to maintaining a pile of your own.
I’ve lived in places where I had no yard and would freeze my compost until I made a trip to the local farm where there was a big pile I could toss it in, as I’ve been dedicated for decades to not throwing away plant matter. Another thing I’ve done is “donate” my kitchen waste to my neighbor who had a bin and welcomed my spent produce. There are also composting services in larger cities, like Terra Firma Compost Company, whose motto is “Don’t waste your waste.” They will leave a 5-gallon bucket for you to fill and then pick it up every two weeks. You can even get a portion of the compost when it’s ready! Compost pick-up services are sprouting up all over the country—there may be one near you!
If you’re focusing on an indoor pile, vermiculture is a good way to break down your wastes and get a beautiful fertilizer in return. I’ve done indoor worm bins and I would highly recommend the book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, as this is a whole other aspect of composting not covered here.2 Not to be confused with the common earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris), vermiculture uses red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), which are worms that thrive in rotting vegetation.
Building Your Home Compost Pile
If you have the space in your yard, begin by designating a spot for the refuse pile. As mentioned above, you can make one pile for food and yard waste and do nothing else. But if you are wanting to keep smells down and get some usable return from your pile, then ideally you’ll need room for three bins or chambers: one active bin for the veggie and plant matter (nitrogen) being tossed; one for the carbon material to cover this waste; and one bin for building a new pile while the old one cures and turns into glorious fertilizer!
Compost Site Placement
If you live in a place where you have homeowner’s association (HOA) management, you may be required to make the process look all prim and proper, and if that’s the case, you may have to install a privacy screen and a covered compost bin like Eartheasy’s Eco King. Place it somewhere out of the full sun so excessive heat does not build up in the bin and kill all the helpful microorganisms.
Choose a site that’s close enough to your home so that emptying your compost bucket won’t be a big hassle. The site needs to be in open air, several feet away from buildings and structures, as the pile needs good air circulation to decompose well. It is best to have the compost directly on the ground so excess moisture can be reabsorbed by the earth below. Build it where you can have a hose nearby if your area experiences dry periods, as it needs consistent moisture.
Compost Building Materials
Some inexpensive building materials to make containers or bins are used pallets, scrap wood, wire, bricks, or cement blocks; some people creatively frame their bins with hay bales! What’s important to remember is that whatever materials you’re using, you want gaps in them so air can flow. That’s why used pallets are my favorite choice. If you use bricks or hay bales, stagger them so there are openings. If you use concrete blocks, use the standard cored ones. If you decide to enclose your piles, build so you can remove one side for easy access when you go to harvest the cured product.
Into the Compost
The bins have been built, and you‘re ready to fill them. But what exactly should and shouldn’t go into the compost pile? A compost pile is like pretty much everything in life—what you put into it will ultimately be what you get out of it. If you put in trash, you’ll get trashy fertilizer. If you add too much carbon like straw or wood chips, you may be waiting forever for the waste to turn into black gold. And if there’s a lot of heavy food material like oily, fatty foods, or meat, the odor arising from your pile may make the neighbors complain.
Browns and Greens
In compost-speak, browns are dry, carbon-rich materials (C) and greens are fresh, moist, nitrogen-rich materials (N). The proper balance of the C:N ratio is essential for producing the sweet-smelling, fertile compost you want. This ratio works best somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1-part nitrogen.3
Since not many of us will be out there composting with scales and measurement devices, it helps to know that carbon is much lighter and less dense than nitrogen, which explains the ratio gap. In practical terms, you can add two bucketfuls of brown on top of every one bucketful of green, generally. (Remember that carbon takes up less space than nitrogen.) You can still have a good end product with a one-to-one bucket ratio—it’ll just be less fertile, as some of the nitrogen will escape as a gas since there was less carbon to capture it.
Examples of compost greens, or nitrogen (N), are kitchen scraps, aged manure, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and weeds. Examples of compost browns, or carbon (C), are leaves, wood chips, hay, sawdust, and shredded paper. We keep a bale of hay next to our compost and every time we empty the compost pail, we toss a few handfuls of hay over it. We also add leaf mold here and there. That is about as scientific as you need to get, and you’ll still create lovely compost!
The Yays and Nays of Compost Contents
To get that sweet-smelling, fertile, cured compost mentioned above, there are some things to avoid adding to your pile. These things either don’t break down well or prevent other things from decomposing at a beneficial rate, which can lead to stinky compost, chunky, lumpy compost, a weed nursery, or an endless pile of goop.
Avoid adding grease, oils, other fats, meat, cheese, and butter. If some of these get in there once in a while, it’s no big deal. But don’t let it happen often. Avocado pits and shells, mango seeds, citrus peels, and coconut shells will take a lot longer to break down than everything else, so if you’re not ok with having bits of them in your finished compost, then don’t add them. Weeds added to the pile that have gone to seed will most likely sprout when you use the composted material on your garden—unless you’re able to get the pile above 140 degrees. And of course, keep plastic and non-biodegradable stuff out! Take the time to remove those stickers and twist ties off your produce before you put them in the pile. You’ll be glad you did!
Weeds in the Compost
Some refuse contents will grow a garden in your compost pile. If you aren’t bothered by having ten avocado trees that will never bear fruit sprouting up in the pile, or a volunteer squash plant that may make a world-class new, hybrid variety, or a mound of potatoes under all the potato greens that have grown out of that rotten, tossed potato, then let them grow! They will, however, take nutrients and water away from the pile that you may be planning to use as potent fertilizer somewhere else. If that’s the case, weed your compost immediately if you see something sprout!
Maintaining the Home Compost Pile
In addition to tossing your kitchen scraps and yard refuse into the compost, there are other maintenance steps to observe. The elements play a key role in the development of the pile, so does time and/or labor. Having a big enough pile to activate itself is important, too. A high-maintenance pile will turn into soil more quickly than a low-maintenance one.
Heating it Up
Turning the compost pile weekly is the most popular way for heating it up to help it smell less, decompose more quickly and evenly, and kill weed seeds and potential pathogens. But this takes additional effort and tools, and I personally am not into it. I feel like I’m interrupting all those precious microorganisms at their party when I turn the pile, plus it’s something on my list I can let Father Time do for me. I don’t add meats or raw manure to the pile either because I want to minimize the chance of potential pathogens. If our compost gets odiferous, I put some extra carbon on it—leaf mold being my favorite odor absorber. We mulch our gardens with hay so there are already plenty of weed seeds in the beds. Besides, a lot of these weeds we eat or make into medicine! So, how the pile heats up is up to you. That said, if you live in a climate that stays fairly cold most of the year, you’ll have to turn the pile yourself.
I’ve seen people make the mistake of covering their compost pile to keep out rodents and other critters, which in effect, dries out and does not allow your pile to decompose. Keep a hose handy if the weather is not taking care of moistening the pile enough, or you are keeping it covered. Consistent moisture is essential to the health of the pile so as to keep odors down and prevent drying out, which can also kill beneficial organisms. Your compost pile should have the consistency of a damp, wrung-out sponge. Those little magic compost bacteria, fungi, worms, protozoa, and other creatures of the invisible realm need water to do their thing, just like we do.
Compost shrinks. There needs to be enough volume maintained to keep the pile activated. The Cornell Waste Management Institute recommends minimum 10-gallon piles.4 This equals two five-gallon buckets worth of compost, so it’s not too hard to achieve. You can stockpile your wastes to get off to a good start. Cornell has done superb research and provided explanations on the physics of compost for those of you who are scientifically-minded and want to be more precise about how you create and maintain your pile.
Critters in the Compost
The most common question I receive when people inquire about starting a compost pile is: “Does it attract wild animals?” In the 25-plus years of having compost piles in the mountains and on an island, and in the city, my experience is that it is not a problem. The rats, raccoons, mice, and skunks are already wandering around and do not just “appear” because you now have a compost. If you keep it well-covered with carbon and don’t put meats, fats, or dairy in the pile, you will most likely not be a wildlife attraction. I’ve had bears on rare occasions visit our pile when we lived in the city, but they also visited the bird feeders and trash cans. They didn’t harm the compost, but the trash was left dispersed all over the place and the bird feeders were ruined. Please do not let fear of critters be the reason you don’t compost.
Harvesting Your Compost
After your refuse pile has either sat long enough or been turned enough times that it has magically transformed from waste into black gold, it’s time to harvest! Your pile will tell you when it’s ready by its attractive soil texture. For us in zone 6 (who don’t turn our pile) that process takes about one year. Most compost piles will be ready to use after a year or so (from the time you rest your old pile and start a new pile), but timing can vary based on your climate. Warm climate bins may compost more quickly, while cold climate compost piles may need a little extra time.The home compost pile will be rich in beneficial insects and microorganisms, and those shovelfuls of humus will build the soil wherever they land in your garden!
Autumn Harvest Ritual
Celebrating the seasons and the turning of the wheel of the year through practical activities is a potent way to connect with the land you live on. For years, I’ve harvested our compost pile every autumnal equinox, giving thanks for this opportunity to support healthy soil and give back to the ground that has fed us through the seasons. And then I begin a new compost pile where I have just harvested the old one, giving the previous pile an entire year to sit, decompose, and rest, and then heat up and do a myriad of other mysterious, invisible things. Next, we switch our sign so the neighbors know which pile to put their wastes in—we have several families using the pile!
Do leave a bit of composted compost in your new bin pile so it can activate the kitchen scraps into decay-mode once they hit the ground.
Compost Benefits to the Herb Garden
Finally, this whole process is able to benefit your own medicine’s growing capacity. It is true that some herbs like rough, rocky conditions to make their strongest medicine, but in general, the herbs you are cultivating—just like vegetables—will be bigger, produce more roots, leaves, flowers, and seeds, if you give them composted soil to grow in.
Insect and fungal damage can be a problem when trying to grow some herbs like astragalus (Astragalus spp.), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum). The more beneficial microorganisms in the soil, the better equipped each plant is to resist the attacks of fungi, molds, and insects, as well as viruses and bacteria. It’s like our own immune system—the more we feed it well, the stronger it gets. Compost has within it so many good guys literally rooting for the health of the plants!
Compost Retains Moisture
The aeration that compost provides when added to any soil type also contributes to a garden’s ability to hold water in a balanced way. This is important if you live in either an arid climate or a super wet one. The plants need just the right amount of water to thrive, and compost supports this action.
Indispensable to the health of your plants is nitrogen. Since herbs cannot get this element from the air, it has to be in the soil, and compost builds the humus that naturally has a healthy balance of nitrogen to feed your plant friends.5 You can use it to top dress your herbs, or turn it into the soil before planting as a soil conditioner.
On behalf of the future generations you are building soil for, thank you, thank you! Composting is key to a lifestyle of reciprocity.
- McDowell C.F. & Clark-McDowell T. Home Composting Made Easy. Cortesia Press; 1998.
- Appelhof M. Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up & Maintain a Worm Composting System. Flower Press; 1982.
- “Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio.” Home Composting Made Easy website. https://www.homecompostingmadeeasy.com/carbonnitrogenratio.html. Cortesia Sanctuary; 2008.
- “Science and Engineering of Composting.” Cornell University website. https://compost.css.cornell.edu/science.html. Cornell University; 1996.
- “Compost for Herbs.” Herbs Within website. https://herbswithin.com/compost-for-herbs Herbs Within; 2020.
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MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) is a devotee of the plants and healing path. Steeping herself in the plant world for almost 30 years, she has also woven in yoga, meditation and prayer as acts of daily life. She is a mother, writer, avid gardener, ceremonialist and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to create sanctuary wherever they are on the planet. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.
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