Composting Your Way to Great Soil
By Steven Biggs
Gardener, Garden Writer, Garden Coach, Horticulturist
Grow your soil as you would grow a garden or raise a child. Grow it into something that can be worked, something whole, something well-balanced. You grow your soil into a medium well-suited to growing vegetables.
As you’ve guessed from my heading, I believe that composting plays a big part in making great soil.
Think of soil as having a base texture.
- Soils based on coarse, gritty particles are sandy
- Soils based on extremely small particles are clay
- Silt-based soils being somewhere in the middle
Each texture has benefits.
- Sandy soils drain well and heat up more quickly in the spring
- Clay and silt-based soils hold more nutrients
The key point to remember is that you’re stuck with what you have (unless you plan to waste money bringing in a truckload of soil).
Sooooo...take what you have and make it great for growing vegetables. It can be as simple as adding lots of organic matter—and that means compost. Compost opens up heavy clay soils to allow movement of air and water, while helping retain water in sandy soils.
Keep it simple.
Making great compost can be very simple. You use organic matter such as leaves and vegetable scraps. You then turn them into soil-building compost by throwing them in a hole, or onto a pile or into a compost bin.
I am amused when I see advertisements for fancy, rotating composters that guarantee compost in a matter of days. Why complicate something that is simple?
Do you need a compost activator? No. It’s simply a microbial inoculant that is intended to hasten decomposition. I layer garden soil in my composter—it contains all the microbes required for great compost.
Here’s my composting system. I use two composters
- A small, animal-proof bin for kitchen scraps (no meat, bones or fat, which smell and attract vermin)
- A large, open topped composter for leaves. Lots of leaves.
Leaves, leaves, leaves—and more leaves
Folks, leaves are a gift. They’re free, and they make great compost. Every autumn I get lots of leaves from my yard. Then I get lots more from my neighbours. Then I get more from the street. If I can’t quite fit them all into the composter, I pile them in a corner till spring, when they will fit (they pack down over the winter).
Here’s what I do with leaves:
- Autumn: they go into the composter, layered with some soil
- Spring: topped with soil so I can grow a crop atop the composter
- Summer: throughout the summer I use an old broomstick to aerate the pile, helping the leaves decompose more quickly. I simply push the broomstick all the way to the bottom of the pile, creating a vertical air channel.
- Autumn again: I dig this compost into the vegetable garden and start again.
In short, I don’t believe you need a fancy composter, and I don’t believe in making work by turning a compost pile all the time. Keep it simple—just aerate it, then grow vegetables on it.
With free leaf compost I have grown my yellow, plasticine-in-spring, earthenware-in-summer clay soil into a rich clay loam. Look at the picture on this page, you’ll see lots of leaves and organic matter.
It’s great exercise... Admittedly, I also use a rototiller, an old family heirloom with which I’m loath to part. In the autumn I use the rototiller to work in the compost that I’ve spread over the garden, then in the spring I lightly turn the soil with a fork.
Remember, keep it simple. If you can grow decent crops, don’t trouble yourself with soil analyses.
Manure is great too. In the spring I get fresh horse manure to make a hotbed—and often a bit extra with which to top off my pile of composting leaves. An acquaintance who keeps horses recently told me that horses are given a host of medications to optimize performance—and wondered if it might be in the manure too. I don’t know yet, but will update this page if I find out more.
Peat moss is another amendment which, like compost, greatly improves the properties of soil. I don’t use a great deal because I have lots of leaves, but it works well.
Want to read more about soil?
to go to my Facebook page, where you can get the chapter about soil from No Guff Vegetable Gardening for free.
Want to know more about growing your soil?
Read an article about the dirt on soil.
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