Monday, April 19, 2010

Visit with author of "Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting"

If your attempts at gardening have not been all that successful, don't give up. I grew great plots of weeds for years before I finally got it figured out. And I'm still learning more every year. My biggest mistake was that I thought I could just plant seeds and they'd grow. Ha! Then I heard that compost was a good organic fertilizer, so I figured you just pile things up, and they rot, right? Well, yeah, sort of.

Today we have a visit from Chris McLaughlin, author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Composting. If you want to grow organically, this is one of those skills that you simply must acquire. And it's a great way to make a lot of your garbage magically disappear. I had a few questions for Chris, so here goes --

Deborah: How did you get interested in gardening?

Chris: I started gardening when I was 14 years, several years ago for sure *grin*. I had a couple of tomato plants, and marigolds the first time around. I was surprised how much I enjoyed watching plants mature.

Deborah: How or when did you start writing?

Chris: I started writing in the 4th grade - seriously. I remember my 4th grade teacher telling me that I should be a writer. Of course, like all young writers, I dreamed of fiction and played with it on and off for years. Later, I realized how nice it was to share what I had been learning with other people and it dawned on me that non-fiction wasn't as boring as I had once thought, LOL. Because my love for growing things stayed with me and I delved more and more into the subject - it was natural for me to write about that.

Deborah: Why did you write a book on composting? It doesn't seem like a topic that would need a whole book to address it.

Chris: I was actually pedaling around another non-fiction book that I was writing about suburban farming (homesteading, or however you look at it). I had some great responses but I began to realize that the market was about to become saturated with this very topic. Instead of trying to push something that already had many voices, I decided to think ahead of the curve. What was it that all of the new gardeners (per the Victory Garden movement) out there were going to need? Ahhh...soil! New gardeners were about to be amazed at just how crappy their soil was - and I had the remedy: compost. By dumb luck, I had an agent interested in representing me at the very same time that a pub house was looking for someone who could write a composting all just lined up right.

By the way, I'd been an avid composter for years and was thrilled at the success I had with rabbit manure. I can create compost REALLY fast with my rabbits.

Deborah: What are you doing in your garden right now?

Chris: Oh, my. Well, I always have perennials and shrubs going husband loves Japanese maples and I love propagating, LOL. In my veggie garden I'm growing all heirlooms this year and trying varieties I've never tried before. I have 13 varieties of tomatoes but 42 of them..hehehe. Lettuce, broccoli, all kinds of mild peppers, carrots, cucumbers, beans, squash, radishes, watermelons - oh I'm growing Moon & Stars watermelon and a couple other delicious-looking ones that I have no idea where I'm going to fit them... I also end up tucking lots of annuals in everywhere to bring in the beneficial insects. This is also the first time that I'll be growing some gourmet beans for a local chef's restaurant and I'm super excited about that.

If any of you have questions about gardening or composting, click on "Comment" and start typing. Chris has agreed to hang around today and answer your questions. And she is also giving away a copy of her composting book! So, if you'd like to win a copy, just leave a comment, and you'll be automatically entered to win. Deadline to enter is Wednesday at midnight, central time, and Chris will mail the book to the winner as soon as it is available May 4.


Sheri Ann Richerson said...

Hi Chris, I just wanted to stop in and say hello! When the article on my book was up I was in and out looking for that first comment, so here it is! Wishing you all the best with your book!

Anonymous said...

Do you have a worm bin? Does it stink?

A Suburban Farmer said...

Anonymous: I do have a worm bin and usually I have two, LOL.

No, they really don't stink because I don't add meats, dairy, butter, or grease to the bin. I also don't overload it.

If I have a ton of kitchen scraps some go to the worms, some go to the chickens and some go into the enclosed compost bin.

melanie said...

How often do you recommend turning the compost pile, and should it be in sun or shade?

A Suburban Farmer said...

Melanie ~ Turning depends on how fast you'd like it to break down as well as how much time you have for it. For a hot pile, 2-3 times a week would be ideal.

I only turn mine 1-2 times a week (okay, usually 1) and because I have a good balance between browns and greens, I have compost fairly fast. There's also nothing wrong with a "cold" pile.

A cold pile is almost never turned, but rather, alternating layers of green & brown materials. It could take a year this way, but if the pile is in an out-of-the-way place or you have some land - it works great.

I have my compost piles in morning sun and afternoon shade. I live in California and things really heat up around here - so I have to add water to the pile more often (less because it's in Part shade).

If you live in a cooler region, I'd put it in full sun because you're problem could be the opposite of mine.

Joyce Scallorn said...

Hi, saw in one of your answers that you can make compost really fast with rabbit manure, since I have 30+ wool rabbits and lots of manure I was curious as to why rabbit manure is so fast? I have piles at my place, but it all has hay in it, do I need to worry about the seeds? Would love a copy of your book.

Christine said...

I've added the book to my Amazon wish list, but in the mean time talk to me about chicken manure. I have gads of it mixed with pine shavings. What would be the fastest way to break it down? I never seem to have enough greens, given that we have sheep and goats that eat all things green.

A Suburban Farmer said...

Joyce ~

Oh ~ Be still my heart. You're sitting on a gold mine! Without getting into all of the other great things about why rabbit poop is the best poop for your garden...the short answer as far as composting is "nitrogen".

Get yourself some carbon (the browns) : straw, dried leaves, paper, paper towels, dried grasses, sawdust, etc.

Now add your yummy rabbit poop in even amounts. Don't weight it or try to see what the C:N ratio is - just eye it...a handful of carbon, a handful of nitrogen (or shovelful).

Dude, if you turn the stuff once or twice a week, you're going to have compost in no time!

By the way - take your rabbit pellets and use them directly on the garden bed. Don't overload things like tomatoes (you want some fruit not just leaves). But the rabbit pellets are super nutritionally balanced.

Now what seeds are you referring to? Do you give your rabbits seed (I stopped doing that).

All things rabbits + compost + worms are in my book, too!

A Suburban Farmer said...

Christine ~ Your chicken manure is nitrogen and will help get the compost cooking. The only way to do this quickly is to have equal parts of nitrogen and carbon then turn it a couple of times a week.

By the way - I WISH chicken manure was the same as the rabbit poop...but you really do have to compost the chicken stuff first before adding it to plants.

Joyce Scallorn said...

My question is around hay seeds. The rabbits need hay on a daily basis to keep them from getting wool blocked, of course some falls through into the trays. I'm concerned that there is a lot of grass and timothy seeds in with the rabbit poo, won't that increase my need to weed LOL.

A Suburban Farmer said...

Oh - got it. I feed mine hay, as well, but haven't had a problem with seeds because of that at all. Also if you keep the pile on the hot site it kills the seeds.

I bred show rabbits for many years and have only 5 at this point. I do miss the few angoras that I had.

Carolyn said...

I'm a suburban gardener. There is just no place to put a big compost pile. What's the best (and quickest) way to get some good compost? Worms? Compact bin? How long do the bins take to turn into good compost? I wish I had rabbits around!! Thanks for the advice!

Shula said...

Is guinea pig manure as good as rabbit? We put this with sheep manure, wasted hay, paper from the guinea pig cage and chicken poop together. Is that ok?

Birgit said...

Great idea for a book ... and one that I need. How bad is it to just throw stuff in the plastic compost tower for years with no regard for brown/green mix and no stirring ... will I, at some point, get nice compost?

A Suburban Farmer said...


I live in suburbia, as well. My open compost piles are about 4 x 4 x 4 - it's not very big. There are also commercial bins available that are somewhat smaller.

But if you don't have room for either of those - yes, vermicomposting can be done on a back porch, garage or even the kitchen! But they aren't very fast at it - and you won't get as ton of compost this way. I use my worm castings as side dressings or I use the leachate (worm juice) as a liquid fertilizer (diluted with 50% water).

A Suburban Farmer said...

Birgit ~ Yup. This is called cold composting and eventually compost will just happen. BUT if you give it just a *little* attention (balance the materials a bit and turn it just every so often) I think you'll be thrilled with the results.

Debra R Bult said...

I compost in an old tractor tire in my backyard. I copied the idea from a friend. The problem I have is,
I don't know how to get to my dirt!
I need some know-how!!!

A Suburban Farmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Suburban Farmer said...

Debra ~ I'm thinking that you'll either have to stand on the tire with a shovel and scoop it into a wheel barrel...OR get wait until it's all been composted and get some handsome young (strong) men to lift the tire up and off of the pile, LOL! Then I'd just start a new pile inside the tire right where it is. Great idea with the tire, though!

Mrs Pretzel said...

I've only ever been successful at worm bin composting, and I would LOVE to know enough to be successful at the other. Complete Idiot's guides are some of my FAVORITE books when it comes to how to books.

I see that you have bins, chickens AND compost. How big is your family?

A Suburban Farmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Suburban Farmer said...

Rachel ~ L0L, my family is on the big side, for sure! However, we do live in a traditional suburban area and we have only 3 hens which give us plenty of eggs. We have 5 rabbits (4H) and the bins just aren't big.

To get a nice pile cooking all you need is about 3 x 3 x 3 of space. Measure that out on your floor. Mine open bins are a little bigger but they're close to each other in one area of the yard.

I, too, have always loved the Idiot's Guide and am thrilled to be writing for them

KimS said...

Ahhh... just in time information! Just bopping in to say Chris' book will be on my list, as well. I received a small handful of red wigglers, at a county extension seminar on vermicomposting (& rain barrels) and have been tending them carefully! What were 98% barely discernible "threads" that moved are now very visible, very wiggly strings, lol. There were, maybe, 3 adults in the whole bunch! Next to tackle: the "regular" compost! DD & I were just conversing on what / how / where to get started.

BJ Gingles said...

Hello Chris,

I have been composting for just a short while. While I don't tend the pile often, I do turn it about twice a week. I am patient though and figure that eventually it should become the black gold I hope it will.

My question concerns coffee grounds. A local coffee shop gives away large packets of used coffee grounds to anyone for the asking. I usually only add the grounds from our personal use but am tempted in getting some of the free stuff. Will I throw things too much out of kilter if I add several bags to my bin? (My hubby built the bin... wooden frame/wire mesh and I think it is 3 x 3 but it could be 4 x 4...I'm not certain)

Also, I would like to add some of the ash from our fireplace this winter (in moderation of course). Is this safe?

A Suburban Farmer said...

kstrating ~ You're going to be so happy that you did! By the way, our worms are named "Freds 1 - 10,0000". LOL.

A Suburban Farmer said...

BJ Gingles ~ The coffee grounds are excellent to add to the compost pile. Yes, in their original form they're acidic, which is why when I get mine from Starbucks, I share some with my blueberry bushes.

However, one of the beautiful things about compost is that the end product becomes very balanced and basically neutral. So, if you used the compost in your garden before it's completely broken down (which is perfectly okay to do) then it could be a little acidic. But if you've given it some time to get the process going it all works out just fine.

The wood ash issue you could get someone to argue on that. Some say yes...some say never. Wood ash is highly alkaline and can be a substitute for lime if you wanted to sweeten an acidic soil. But it also has good phosphorus and potash properties, too.

For me, I don't think that adding a little is a problem but a little goes a long way in this case. Also, be sure the ashes are *cold* or you might get a hotter compost pile than you bargained for (fire).

Chef E said...

Do I win a prize for being the 100 post, lol, no really I threw myself into learning about composting when the kids where young and I home schooled- gardening was part of their science and home ec classes, so we did the worm casting and all!

Love this! And apparently so does so many others!

Spinners End Farm said...

Hi Chris and Deborah!

I am in charge of the fiber critters and my husband is in charge of their contributions to the compost. We too have sheep and angora rabbits and I'm convinced their output contributes to a happy marriage (I married a botanist and gardener). We have a large compost pile that is only dedicated to the dreaded spotted knapweed- it composts nicely but I'm unsure wether we can use it or not due to the plants allelopathic effects on other dicots- have you any experience or advice? I'm also wondering if the seeds are still viable after a few years in the compost. It is rather a nasty weed (though has a good evolutionary strategy).

Unknown said...

I stink at composting. grin. Anyways, we have 2 big piles that we cold compost. I just can't seem to get the hang of hot composting.

BJ Gingles said...

Chris and Deborah,

Just wanted to stop back in and thank you both for the time and effort you've taken to do this. I've enjoyed reading everyone's posts and am looking forward to reading the book.

Deborah Niemann said...

Thanks to everyone for contributing to the discussion, and a big thank you to Chris for answering all of our questions and donating a book to my awesome readers! Speaking of that -- the winner of the book is SpinnersEnd! Drop me an email (deborah at antiquity oaks) with your address, and I'll forward it to Chris!


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