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WEB EXTRA: Compost Piles Aren't as Fussy as Some Think PDF Print E-mail
Written by LEE REICH, For The Associated Press   
Wednesday, 03 November 2010 20:26

Pity the beginning gardener who dares to read about composting. (Please dare to read on, in this case, even if you are a beginner.)

What novice would not be intimidated by the too often very complicated instructions, as well as alleged needs for exotic or hard-to-find ingredients.

Some British gardening books, for example, might have you tossing in your pitchfork and gloves in despair trying to find – of all things! – soil for your compost pile. Many British "authorities" recommend laying down a 1 to 2 inch blanket after every foot or so of other ingredients. Where are you going to find all that soil?

In fact, soil is a nice, but surely not necessary, addition to a compost pile. Rather than those 1 to 2 inch layers, just add sprinklings of soil to your compost piles. Or none at all.


The directives most likely to persuade a beginner to abandon composting are those telling us not to compost diseased plants or plant parts. The same could be said for warnings against composting plants or plant parts harboring insect pests. You might similarly be instructed to keep weeds out of your compost piles. Is any of this possible or desirable?

Unless you regularly douse your property with a slew of insecticides and fungicides, you are unlikely to find much plant material that does not host some insect or disease pest. That's if you looked closely enough. You might find a clean leaf here and there, but nothing in quantity, and surely nothing worth picking through. And if you follow warnings against using weeds, you miss out on the sweet revenge of reincarnating them, from agents that rob plants of nutrients and water into compost, which has the opposite effect.


So forget all the talk about keeping pest-ridden plants and weeds out of compost piles. Using a finished compost that has been fed such things should not cause any problems.

What spells death to insect, disease and weed pests in a compost pile is a combination of heat and time. Pile up compostable materials in a big batch, with attention to the mix of ingredients, air and moisture, and intense heat soon follows.

Get a long-probed compost thermometer (you can find them at,, or, among other places) and watch the dial spin as high as 160 degrees, which is hot enough to kill virtually all pests in short order.

A casually made pile, built gradually over a few weeks – especially at this time of year with weather turning cooler – will generate little heat. But let any pile of living or once living material sit long enough and it will eventually turn dark brown and crumbly. Along the way, pests will have expired or been gobbled up by other microorganisms. A week at 100 degrees could have the same killing effect on some pest as an hour at 140 degrees.


You cannot do much better for your garden than to lavish it with compost. And you need plenty of raw materials to make plenty of compost.

Don't waste any compostable materials – including weeds and pest ridden plants – by bagging them up as garbage or burning them.


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