My Pile: Nature vs. Nurture

The first hard freeze of winter has set in. I consider my pile from behind the frosted glass panes of the kitchen door, squinting through the low morning sun for a sign of steam vapor rising from its top. What combustible forces, if any, still go on within? How far into my pile has the cold seeped in? What protection does the heap’s insulating cloak of leaves and seagrass straw provide? Have I given my pile the resources it needs to keep from shutting down completely?

A good long winter’s slumber is just fine for groundhogs; aside from the birds that flock to the backyard feeder, all else in my yard has closed up shop for the winter, as it should. But part of the sport of nurturing a compost pile is in keeping its inner fires stoked to ward off the stasis of winter dormancy for as long as possible. A compost pile in hiberation is boring. It just sits there.

A pile of dried leaves and additions of rotting greens teems with the unseen creatures and natural processes that make humus happen.

Or so it seems. Some years ago, as I was beginning to take backyard composter more seriously, I went to the local garden store to shop for my pile. I’d read a little about “activators” that kick-start a pile’s decomposition, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t missing some essential ingredient, an edge.

On the shelf I saw a squat bag of a powdery product called Bio-Excelerator, that promised “to offer the complete solution to generating rich, fertile humus – Nature’s best soil conditioner.” The package looked and hefted like a bag of flour; the backside label boasted that inside were “the most effective microorganisms coupled with the proper energy sources and pH balancers to assure you composting success…”

I checked the side of the bag for a list of ingredients and instead found copy that claimed inside were “…billions of microbes especially cultured for composting. In addition to containing moderate and high-heat active microbes, special varieties are included that can speed the decomposition of difficult-to-compost organic matter. All are combined with special proprietary energy sources containing kelp and dried blood to ensure a rapid decomposition … also contains special natural organic calcium compounds to neutralize the organic acids produced during composting.”

Like a bottle of daily vitamins, it seemed to me, only more mysterious, in a secret sauce sort of way. So I plunked down $11.99 plus tax. I shook the white powder onto my pile like so much pixie dust. It figured it couldn’t hurt, and just might help.

That was before I’d begun my winter reading of composting and gardening books and blogs, and learned that my pile could do just as well left to its own devices.

Each random handful of dirt in my yard contains millions of bacteria; countless spores of mold and fungi settle each day on my pile. All play their roles in reducing the rawness and wholeness of my pile into more elemental, digested parts.

In “Let It Rot — the Gardener’s Guide to Composting,” Stu Campbell writes, “Composting will be a whole lot simpler for you if you acknowledge the fact that the right bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes already exist within your compost pile. The potential for excellent decomposition is right there. Let Mother Nature worry about adjusting the various populations within the micro-community. That’s her job, and she does it well.”

Co-authors Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin explore the case for adding activators in “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide” (Storey Publishing 2008): “Even the slowest of heaps includes colonies of adapted microbes, but why not have more? This is the idea behind microbial compost activators, which are typically dry powders that contain compost-ready fungi and bacteria.

“It can be argued that using microbial activators is like selling ice to the good people of Iceland. Why would they need more ice? And if they did need ice, why not use some of their own? You probably already possess the best microbial activator you can use, which is homemade compost. Your own compost (especially almost-finished compost) contains an overflowing buffet of microorganisms that have proliferated in the unique setting of your own yard. They have a proven ability to work your one-of-a-kind compostable waste stream. They haven’t been imprisoned in a package, so they are ready for action. Need we say more?”

Actually, Mike McGrath, in his “Book of Compost” (Sterling, 2006) does have more to say: “…Turns out [compost activators] DO have value, but not when used according to the directions on most of the packages….”

“Saved your purchased ‘starter/activators’ till the very end. New research has found that many composts could use a little kick AFTER they’re finished. That’s right — after! Lots of beneficial creatures are killed by the heat of the composting process itself, and many others simply reach the end of their natural life span around that time. So, after a batch of compost is finished, mix the recommended amount of activator directly into the finished batch. Let it sit for 24 hours so the organisms can colonize the entire batch of compost, and then use it. That way, you’ll be sure to be adding the maximum amount of beneficial life to your soils.”

Food for thought. But for now I’ll stick to my new year’s resolution to leave my pile to its own devices, my good-natured meddling aside.

 

 

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