Compost Challenge

Compost seems incredibly overpriced – whether you buy it by the cubic foot or yard it ends up costing a lot of money. And that’s an annual cost, not a one-time thing. Our yard is too small to realize any significant savings from bulk purchase; yet it’s big enough to need much more compost than we can produce on-site. This got me thinking about all of the ways we’re currently making compost and how we might do better.

Status Quo

  • cold compost pile: 2 cubic yard bins yield about 1/2 yard of finished compost annuallyIMG_4539
  • leaf bins: about 3 cubic yards; we add leaves to our compost bins, use them as worm bedding, for mulch, to cover overwintering plants and root crops, … it’s really versatile stuff
  • worm bins: we currently have 2 decent sized bins; these provide all the compost tea you could desire, but only a couple cubic feet of compost.


  • chop and drop: mainly comfrey; the amount is too small to be measured in cubic feet
  • cover crops: rye, barley, clover, nasturtium, mache – we’ve not been very consistent in cover-cropping, so the benefit in terms of compost has been smallIMG_4573IMG_4564IMG_4546

Composting Potential

  • Tap into suitable local streams of organic waste: tossed produce from our grocery store, grounds from our local coffee shop, our neighbors’ yard waste. There’s plenty of stuff around, it just requires a bit of time and effort to get it.
    The limiter is our compost bin capacity which we can’t really expand. The alternative would be to bury compostables and grow suitable veggies on top; we’ve shied away from that for fear of attracting rats or raccoons to our yard.
  • Grow more cover crops / green manure: comfrey, clover, buckwheat, vetch. These benefit the soil as they’re growing and can be simply chopped into the soil when they’re done. The limiter here is available space; but we still have potential by being more diligent about cover cropping empty space and also by inter-planting. Finally, we can grow more comfrey on our gardenshare patch.
  • Manure: horse manure is available free of charge for pick-up. Unfortunately we don’t have the right vehicle for hauling manure. Chicken manure is available from backyard coops in our neighborhood – that seems worth looking into. The downside to manure is that it usually needs to be composted before it can be applied to the garden.

It’s really hard to have a self-contained vegetable garden that does not rely on external inputs. It’s possible, if you have lots of space you can devote to growing compostables and rotating your veggie beds – but in the city that is not usually the case. Animals can be a significant source of nutrients in a garden – but our yard just isn’t suitable for livestock of any kind (other than bees).

What to do? I think the answer for us is simply to be content with a slightly reduced yield. This is, after all, just a fun and educational pastime, not our livelihood. We appreciate the fresh garden produce, but we aren’t dependent on it. We’ll continue experimenting with various composting methods and green manure. We’ll be content knowing nothing is going to waste in our garden. And we’ll keep our dollars instead of spending them on compost.

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3 Responses to Compost Challenge

  1. Hi there. Thanks for a great post. Compost is always one of the big things in gardening that there is never enough of (except space). I hate having to buy it in to meet the needs. Your post has given me food for thought. Cheers Sarah : o )

  2. Sharon says:

    Sounds like you’re doing some great stuff, with your worms and cover crops. I’ve heard that rabbit manure doesn’t have to be composted before it goes in the garden. Since rabbits can live in a small space and eat very little, maybe that would be an ideal manure-maker for you? I’m thinking myself about getting some angoras, so they’ll do double-duty providing fiber for knitting!

    • I’ve heard that too about rabbits. So they’d be doing triple-duty if you also use the fiber. Now if I weren’t a non-knitting vegetarian I might be tempted to give it a try 🙂

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