Compost is one of the permaculture gardener’s most potent tools. It recycles “waste” from the garden and the home and turns it into a material rich in nutrients, which soils benefit from immensely. Composting essentially means the decomposition of organic matter by enzymes and microorganisms. This decomposition releases nutrients from the material that, once the compost is added to the soil, become available for plants and soil organisms to use. There are lots of different things that you can put into your compost pile, including vegetables and fruit scraps from the kitchen, prunings, leaf litter and grass clippings from the garden, and even dead animals.
Tea and Coffee Bags
Coffee grounds and tealeaves definitively have a place in a permaculture garden. They are useful additions to the compost pile, adding generous amounts of phosphorous and potassium – two elements essential to plants – as well as to worm farms. However, coffee grounds and tealeaves must only be used in compost if they are “bag less.” The bags that some coffee and tea products come in do not break down rapidly in a permaculture compost pile, and can contain chemicals you don’t want in your soil.
Citrus Peel and Onions
While fruit and vegetables scraps from the kitchen are some of the fundamental inputs into a home compost pile, there are two exceptions: citrus peel and onions. The acidity in these can kill worms and other microorganisms, limiting the effectiveness of the decomposition.
Dog and Cat Droppings
Many types of manure make excellent additions to compost piles. Horse, cow, and chicken droppings, for example, will add nutrients and organic matter that will benefit the soil. However, it is not advisable to add the excreta from dogs and cats to your compost. Their droppings are likely to contain parasites that you do not want to introduce to plants from which you will be eating. The same goes for human excreta. If you do want to make use of these waste products, you must process them separately from your organic pile, and only use the resulting permaculture compost on non-food crops.
Fish and Meat
It is recommended that you don’t add fish and meat scraps from your kitchen to the compost pile. This is not because they contain detrimental elements or inhibit microorganism activity, but rather that their presence will act like a magnet for “vermin” who will ransack the compost to eat them. Rats, mice and foxes will seek out such morsels, as well as neighboring cats.
It can be tempting to consider all paper products as potential material for the compost pile. After all, they all come from trees, don’t they? And newspaper is a well-regarded provider of compost and mulch. However, paper that has been treated with inorganic substances is not suitable for a compost pile. Glossy magazines, for example, have these inks on their pages.
Most kinds of plastic are not biodegradable. This means that not only do they have no place in a compost pile, but also we should minimize our use of them throughout our lives. Waste plastic is a major reason why valuable space is used for landfills, and is a significant threat to marine life in the oceans. Indeed, as well as large “drifts” of plastic items in the seas, the plastic breaks down under sunlight to tiny toxic particles that end up in the guts of fish and other crustaceans, and potentially from there into the human food chain.
Sticky labels on fruit are one of the most common plastic-coated items that can end up in compost piles. Try to ensure you remove stickers from fruit scraps when you take them from the kitchen to the compost pile.
Coal Fire Ash
The ash from coal fires should not be added to your compost pile, as it can make the soil excessively sulfuric. Plants, like all living things, need some sulfur in order to develop healthy cells and protein. However, too much sulfur in the soil can cause a build-up of salts, which can kill plants.
Sawdust from Treated Woods
While sawdust from untreated, natural woods can be a beneficial addition to compost (it is particularly effective if you are looking to increase potassium levels in the soil), if the wood has been treated with any kind of varnish or paint, you should avoid adding the sawdust to your compost pile. These inorganic compounds won’t break down in the composting process and can leach into the soil, negatively affecting microorganism activity. These coatings also mean that it is difficult for organisms and bacteria within the compost pile itself to get to the wood underneath, meaning that the treated sawdust takes a very long time to break down, delaying when you can use your compost on the garden.
As all good permaculture gardeners know, organic fertilizer is the best way of feeding your soil the nutrients it needs while remaining in tune with nature. In contrast, artificial fertilizers introduce inorganic elements into the ecosystem. While such fertilizers may provide nutrients that plants need, the temptation to add artificial fertilizers to your compost to five it a “boost” should be resisted. The form in which said nutrients are provided is not natural, meaning that they are not in tune with the ecosystem as a whole. Compounds in artificial fertilizers, such as heavy metals, inevitably leach through the soil into the water table, while others can upset the balance of chemicals in the soil, increasing salinity, evaporation and deterioration. Stick to natural, organic materials for your compost pile to avoid upsetting the balance of nature.
Garden waste is a primary component of good organic compost on most permaculture sites. However, it is advisable to make sure prunings and branches are only added to the compost pile in small bits. Large branches will simply slow the process down considerably. It may be a little extra work to cut down your branches for the compost pile, but you’ll reap the rewards of rich, valuable compost much sooner.