Composting is one of my favorite gardening topics to discuss, and I found a kindred spirit in our shared love of composting, with Dr. Lee Reich. He has been perfecting the art and science of composting for more than 40 years. This week’s podcast is an encore of our conversation from a few years back on why composting is a fulfilling activity and how composting challenges can be overcome.
Lee is a Ph.D. with graduate degrees in soil science and horticulture who lives and works on his “Farmden” — more than a garden, but less than a farm — in New Paltz, New York. After working in plant and soil research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cornell University, Lee shifted gears to writing, lecturing and consulting. He is now a national gardening columnist for the Associated Press and an author of several books, including “Weedless Gardening,” “The Ever Curious Gardener,” “Grow Fruit Naturally” and “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.”
Lee fell in love with composting when he started his first compost bin while studying soil science. In just two months’ time, materials that many people think of as garbage became something that smells good and is good for the garden, he recalls. “Even after doing it for 40-plus years, it still just amazes me,” he says. He compares his compost piles to pets that he takes care of, including feeding them, watering them, and giving them air.
I can relate to Lee — I still find myself getting excited when I turn compost and steam comes out, despite having seen it many times.
To learn everything you need to know to start composting effectively, you can download my free resource, The Complete Guide to Home Composting.
Top Reasons People Give for Not Composting
Though home composting reduces what ends up in landfills and provides a valuable soil amendment for healthier gardens, many people are not sold on the idea of doing it themselves. Lee has heard a number of reasons that people commonly give, but he wants them to know that most barriers to composting can be overcome.
The top reason Lee hears is that people don’t want to collect food scraps and have them sit there for a few days when they could have just thrown them out in a bin outside with the garbage immediately. Frankly, some people find it gross, according to Lee. But he thinks this is easily addressed by having a separate bin, with a carbon material on top, where compost can be disposed of outdoors routinely. It’s a matter of making it a habit, just like separating recyclables into a separate bin.
Another reason some people are hesitant to compost is they think it is too complicated. You may already know about “browns” and “greens.” These are the carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials, respectively, that are mixed to make compost efficiently. Lee says what people should know is that even if the proportions are not right, any organic material will decompose into compost eventually, given the time.
Composting inputs do not need to get hot to decompose, Lee notes. His compost gets up to 150 degrees, and yes, hot composting works faster, but there’s nothing wrong with making compost slowly at a low temperature.
Open bins and the potential for smells, rodents and angry neighbors is another concern. Lee recommends a closed bin with leaves, sawdust or wood chips in the mix. As long as there are plenty of these loose carbon-rich materials, the compost will be airy and not smell. (Nitrogen-rich materials alone may give off an ammonia odor.)
Aside from having a closed-bin system with a tight lid, Lee says people who have chickens can keep rats away from compost by putting food scraps out in the compost bin early in the morning. The chickens will devour anything appetizing to rodents before the scavengers become active at night.
Apartment residents generally find composting challenging or even think it’s impossible given the little space they have, with no yard. But Lee actually got his start composting while living in a third-floor apartment in Vermont, so he can attest that it is possible.
How Lee Reich Makes Compost
Lee had been in the habit of creating a compost pile, turning it after one month, and then using it after another month. While making finished compost in just two months is a laudable feat, he found that the compost would be ready to go before he had any place to put it. That’s understandable, considering he has 12 separate compost bins and couldn’t possibly use it all at once.
Lee’s latest practice is to start filling a bin in spring, wait until the following spring to turn it, and then use it in fall.
How to Get Compost Hot
Putting organic materials out in the sun is not the way to start a hot composting process. What it comes down to is the inputs, and balancing the greens and browns. If compost has both greens and browns but fails to get hot, Lee says to err on the side of adding more nitrogen-rich greens.
In addition to getting the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio right (30:1), hot composting requires water and air. The compost should be about as wet as a wrung-out sponge, all the way through. To achieve this, Lee adds water between every layer of organic materials he adds. Air can be introduced to the pile by turning the materials with a garden fork, which is also a good opportunity to add water.
Size is also a factor that could be holding compost back. A pile of organic materials that is smaller than 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet will struggle to get hot. The pile needs to be at least that large to reach critical mass.
Hot composting is not only faster, but it also has the benefit of destroying many pathogens and killing weed seeds. This happens when the temperature exceeds 130 degrees and holds that temperature for several days.
Breaking the “Rules” of Composting
Most of us have a pretty good idea of the things in our homes that can be composted — apple cores, banana peels, etc. — but Lee pushes the limits of what’s compostable. He says he just really hates the idea of sending something to the landfill that he could be giving to the soil. That’s why he composts old cotton clothing. He first tried this with a pair of underwear, which decomposed in one cycle, minus the elastic band. He’s also tried composting denim jeans, which was slower going but a good experiment.
How Lee Reich Uses Compost
About 90 percent of the compost that Lee creates goes into his vegetable gardens, with the rest generally going around young fruit trees. By his calculations, a 1-inch layer of finished compost should give a garden all the nutrients it would need for a whole season of intensive planting.
Lee adds small amounts of lime to his compost bins rather than adding it to his gardens directly. Otherwise, all nutrients and minerals he adds to his garden come from his compost, which has a greater diversity of micronutrients and minerals than an all-purpose fertilizer.
How to Compost in Winter
The composting process slows in winter as lower temperatures lead to less biological activity. Compost piles can still be added to over the winter, but the inputs may not decompose much until the weather warms again in spring.
So he can still compost his kitchen scraps all winter without attracting scavengers, Lee has composted indoors. His method uses three 5-gallon buckets, one of which starts full of half-sawdust and half-soil with a little lime sprinkled in. In a second bucket, he adds kitchen scraps that he covers with the sawdust and soil mixture as he goes. He repeats this until the bucket is full and then puts it aside and starts filling a third bucket. By the time the third bucket is full, the materials in the second bucket have broken down enough that they are no longer appealing to scavengers, and he can add it to an outdoor bin.
Another idea from Lee is to keep hay near the compost pile to cover up kitchen trimmings as they are added. This can keep out animals and prevent smells.
I hope you found my conversation with Lee Reich amusing and insightful. He is a great friend of the podcast and a wealth of gardening knowledge. You can listen to this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
And if you haven’t already done so, you can download The Complete Guide to Home Composting, a free resource, to answer all of your composting questions.
How have you overcome home composting challenges? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
“Weedless Gardening” by Lee Reich
“Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” by Lee Reich
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company and Wild Alaskan Seafood Box. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.