Home Composting Myths And Questionable Conventional Wisdom

Compost happens - Ahm, no it doesn't, and that which does happen without human assistance is by definition not composting.

There is no right or wrong way to compost, just experiment and find the method that works best for you.

The pile needs a mix of "browns" (Carboniferous) and "greens" (Nitrogenous) materials.

Meat, dairy products, diseased plants, and fecal matter should not be composted. - This is simply not true. Whole animal carcasses (cow, horse, etc.) are composted on a regular basis. Composting human corpses will soon be routine. It is not that these items cannot be composted but rather that you need to take greater care and have a well-designed, well-managed composting operation. That the conventional wisdom cannot include this qualifier supports my theory that there is some sinister element in composting education whose goal it is to keep composting in its dumb and happy Dark Age.

The pile should be moist like a wrung out sponge. Pick up a clump in your hand and squeeze it tightly. If no drops appear, it is too dry; if liquid streams out, it is too wet. - Someone wrote this long ago and it has been repeated ad nauseum, without question (until now) ever since. It sounds great but does not make any sense, because compost materials themselves do not possess the properties of a sponge. See the pile watering link to learn how to efficiently moisten your compost materials.

...enough to destroy disease pathogens and weed seeds. - Let's start by discussing those dreaded pathogens, then we will move on to those evil weed seeds. I did not [consciously] cross paths with the word "pathogen" until I started reading composting books. Per Rodale, tomatoes, potatos, and peppers are susceptible to diseases and viruses that may survive the composting process and get passed along to next year's crop. I am in no position to dispute this, but what I will question is whether or not such pathogens are present in every pile and need to be destroyed. Say you mix leaves and grass clippings together...where do the pathogens come from? Let's up the ante a bit and include fruit and vegetable peelings and even food scraps that you just ate...if they were covered in pathogens wouldn't you get sick? I understand that if different meats, fowl, or fish are being prepared that cutting boards should not be shared, and that if these foods are not properly cooked (especially raw shellfish such as oysters) that the ingestor runs the risk of illness. So...I gather that if raw meat parts (e.g. chicken skin, steak fat, fish parts) are being added to the compost pile that some precautions need to be taken. This is what I deem advanced composting which I cannot properly address at this time.

Weed seeds to be discussed later....

Locate your pile in a place where it won't be seen. - Only if you make an eyesore from shipping pallets, or an ugly heap. A proper bin is by no means a work of art, but it is by no means ugly. But this is hideous.

The pile needs to be 3 x 3 x 3' (27 cubic feet) at a minimum or it will not get hot... - (continued in next myth) - First, per the Rodale book, a hot pile in which thermophilic bacteria thrive is between 113 and 158F. My preferred active pile is a 2' diameter x 2 1/2' tall cylinder (8 cubic feet), and it easily reaches that temperature range. Second, do you realize just how large 27 cubic feet is? It doesn't sound like much, a mere 3 x 3 x 3' cube, but relative to the human scale, it is ENORMOUS. Indeed, 8 cubic feet makes a larger batch than I care to harvest at a time (harvesting takes the most time...declumping and then drying), and I plan to move to a smaller active pile size in order to make the batch more manageable. By the way, the U.K. equivalent of the 1 cubic yard rule is their 1 cubic meter rule. Ahm, a cubic meter is 30% larger than a cubic yard.

You don't need a compost bin, just pile material in a heap. - "To bin or not to bin, that is the question." So said William Shakespeare, an avid composter. Composting relates to cooking in some ways, and this is one. An open heap is to a proper bin as a campfire is to a stovetop and cookware. They both get the job done but one is a whole lot better at creating an assured outcome. That said, I do use heaps, small ones made from my yard trimmings. I consider them a variant of hugelkultur piles. As opposed to my primary piles made from others's throwaways, I do not plan to harvest the soil-based piles.

Shipping pallets can be used to make a composting bin. - "When the problem changes, the solution usually needs to as well." - Dentremont. Shipping pallets were invented circa 1920 to solve the problem of mating a forklift to cargo. Exactly how they came to be an accepted solution to solving the compost material containment problem is beyond me. I love getting things for free, but do not recommend shipping pallets as a bin material. At 35 lbs. each they are heavy to transport. Splinters and rusty nails can cause harm. The open sides do not retain moisture. They are ugly. They deteriorate. Shipping pallets make awful compost bins.

Cinder blocks

Make a bin from a 10' - 12' piece of chicken wire. - Chicken wire is a useful material, my choice for a first pass sifter. However, I do not recommend it as a bin material for two reasons: 1) It is unruly and dangerous and it is so easy to get scratched or pricked from the ends. You must handle the material with extreme care. But the reason it makes a poor bin material is that it is weak and will settle with the pile. A proper compost bin should not settle along with the contents. The reality is that chicken wire is completely inappropriate for a compost bin. If someone tells you otherwise - run.

Make the pile in layers...2" of this, 4" of that, 3" of this, etc. - Materials should be mixed together to some extent. Separate layers make no sense. Some sources advise making a pile in layers and then doing the mixing at the first turn. This does not make sense.

Use grass clippings as a nitrogen source. - If you must, but if your goal is to improve soil health then leaving the clippings where they fall makes more sense. Why deplete one area of soil in order to enrich another area?

Just chuck it onto the pile. - This violates PPS (Pilepro Standard) TBD which advises that new materials are to be properly moistened before being added to a pile, but that a pile should really be made all at once.

Worm composting or vermicomposting - I have a bit of a problem linking worms to composting. While worms can make their way into a pile that has set for too long, I find them to be annoying come harvest time. I am sure that worm composting has its place, but I do not believe that place is suburbia. Keep worms if you like, but I prefer to feed the worms that live outdoors. One thing is certain - the term "vermicompost" is not appropriate.

Compost is free - I want people to compost as much as anyone, but the stuff is not free, and it's not even cheap, if you put a value on your time. Store bought stuff is much cheaper. Composting is a rewarding and enjoyable hobby that more people should do, but telling them they can make stuff for free it just misleading.

Composting is easy and fun. - As with the last claim, I dispute this one. Composting is a wonderful hobby but I would not call it fun, like say, a roller coaster or water slide is fun. Nor is it easy, as are television remote controls or automobile power windows. There is a fair amount of work required to process even just 8 cubic feet of material. You can make it into a workout, for sure. But you could hurt yourself, too.

A black bin in the sun will help heat the pile. - I have no proof that this is a myth, but it sure seems like one to me. I'd like to see a test of white bin vs. black bin.

Sifting is optional.

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