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Unlike the slow method, fast composting is scientific, and if you don’t do the process just right a few things can go wrong. If the pile is wet and smelly, that’s a sign you put in too much nitrogenous and not enough carbonaceous material. Adding a handful or two of sawdust or some chopped dry leaves usually fixes this. If, on the other hand, your pile doesn’t heat up even though you put it together correctly, that is a sign it’s too dry and you need to add a little water, or perhaps you put in too much dry carbonaceous matter and not enough nitrogenous waste. In that case, you need to add some nitrogenous materials like grass clippings, hot manure, or even human urine, or a few fish heads or fish entrails. (Fish parts will heat up a pile quickly, and it’s safe to add them in an enclosed drum composter since animals won’t be attracted.) If you’re a man and your compost pile is located in a private part of the garden, simply stand there and pee on the pile, and it will heat up the pile fast. You may laugh at me for this suggestion, but I might as well be truthful: people have been using this simple, built-in method of adding nitrogen to soil and soil amendments for thousands of years. Human urine is a clean and strong source of nitrogen. You need to dilute it in order not to damage plant roots. It is a bit too salty to use for feeding roses and vegetables in dry Southwest climates as is done in many other countries, especially Finland, but it’s fine for heating up a compost pile. It also includes phosphorus and potassium.

The best thing about hot composting is how quickly it works when done right. You can actually get a marvelous product ready to use in six weeks. It sounds impossible, but if the mix is right and you keep tossing the pile, hot composting works like a dream. While tossing and turning the pile, one should put the cooler bits into the middle and the hotter parts on the outside. This is fun and satisfying work, and it’s a great way to lose weight, but one needs to have strong knees. After I got knee replacements, I had to give it up. Composting didn’t ruin my knees, however — being thrown from wild horses accomplished that.

Since the 1950s, I’ve lived and gardened in Del Mar, and during that time have enjoyed a long history of trying out various composting methods. Recently, I decided I should write down this composting history and share it with others so they can reap the rewards of composting while avoiding the pitfalls. Having spent my early teen years on my family’s organic farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when I arrived in Southern California in 1944, I was steeped in the idea that we need to return all organic waste to the ground. I also expected that everyone would feel as I did on this subject and was shocked to discover that this was far from the truth. After I married, my husband and I settled in Del Mar next door to his parents, and I searched for a place to build a compost pile on my property. I made the mistake of discussing this subject with my in-laws, the late John Lloyd Wrights, a talented, fascinating, but strong-willed pair. John was the second son of Frank Lloyd Wright; my husband was the son of John’s wife, Frances. The Wrights grew up in Chicago and environs, but even John, who used to play on his grandfather’s Wisconsin farm in summer, could not accept nor believe in the correctness of composting here in California. They did not want me to have a compost pile, since they were convinced it would bring rats and other animals. Their point of view had some merit.

Soon I learned another way to compost that required no rat-attracting heap. I learned that the San Diego Zoo’s composting method was to chop up all garden trimmings and use them as mulch on the ground under the very plants from which they had come. The Zoo’s method was combined with mature plants and heavy overhead irrigation, so nothing was unsightly and things rotted quickly. Imported water was plentiful in the 1950s, and though we were aware we lived in a dry climate, even the Metropolitan Water District encouraged plentiful use of irrigation in order to keep water rates low.

I adopted the Zoo’s method of composting in my brand new and sparsely planted garden. I was trying to improve the sandy soil that had almost no organic matter in it. But this too met with a hue and cry and considerable amusement once the Wrights discovered what I was doing. They didn’t understand mulch but thought every leaf should be swept up, bagged, and sent to the dump. Like many people who move to California, they had no idea that even eucalyptus leaves will gradually rot and add their goodness to the ground; all it takes is time. Even the oils in eucalyptus leaves eventually break down in the compost process and do no harm. Pine needles can also be composted, but it is wise to compost them separately because of their acid content, and then use the compost for acid-loving plants such as camellias. Uncomposted pine needles are useful as mulch for azaleas and camellias, but even today are often swept up by gardeners and sent to the dump.

After my early composting attempts had failed due to heated opposition, I tried to improve my garden soil by burying kitchen waste straight in the ground, which on my property was little better than pure beach sand. In the early days of my garden, this practice attracted wild animals, including raccoons and the dreaded rats. My garden was still a wild place, without flowerbeds or vegetables. In a more conventional garden, burying wet materials from the kitchen, such as salad greens, cantaloupe and papaya peels, and vegetable peelings is a perfectly good and useful way to add nitrogenous materials to the ground, but unless one buries kitchen waste deeply in one’s vegetable garden or flower beds, or under garden paths, animals both wild and domestic can be attracted to it and will dig it up. Another way is to blend vegetable and fruit wastes with water and pour it straight into garden soil, but this method takes time and electricity. It never seemed sensible to me.

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Comments

Shotgun Shela Aug. 23, 2011 @ 7:42 p.m.

well now,I've got onea them "drum tumblers" Compost Tumbler brand -- use it all the time -- gonna be placin a stool in front of it now, thanks to yer "nitrogen enhancin" tip Pat :) good thing I've got a tall garden wall ;) & I'll keep the wind at my back ;) NICE article BTW

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SurfPuppy619 Aug. 24, 2011 @ 5:03 p.m.

I put ALL of my compost materials in a bowl, after I have cut them into smaller pieces so they decompose faster, and then at the end of every week I dig a 6-8 inch hole somewhere in the backyard and bury it. It usually decompses in a matter of weeks, and the hole is ready for another round a month or two later.

The soil becomes SO RICH once you start composting.

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