The Complete Compost Gardening Guide

Banner Batches, Grow Heaps, Comforter Compost, and Other Amazing Techniques for Saving Time and Money, and Producing the Most Flavorful, Nutritious Vegetables Ever


By Deborah L. Martin

By Barbara Pleasant

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Develop mature compost right in your garden. Barbara Pleasant and Deborah Martin explain their six-way compost gardening system in this informative guide that will have you rethinking how you create and use your compost. With your plants and compost living together from the beginning, your garden will become a nourishing and organic environment that encourages growth and sustainability. You’ll also find that the enriched soil requires less tending, weeding, and mulching, so you can do less back-breaking work for the same lush, beautiful results. 


How to Use This Book

A working compost garden is an interesting place, because you never know what kind of compost might be lurking beneath an innocent pile of leaves or perhaps a pen of withering weeds. The former might be a Nursery Reserve where pots of chrysanthemums have been tucked in for winter, and the latter might be the topmost layer of a Layered Crater or Honey Hole. If phrases such as these confuse you at first, please bookmark the glossary (pages 290–292). After you have read the definitions of important concepts a few times, and start experiencing your landscape as a compost-generating system, ideas like Comforter Compost or Hospital Heap will become as familiar to you as how to prepare a planting hole.

Part 1

Getting Started with Compost Gardening

Gardening in Garbage

YOU HAVE PICKED UP this book and opened it to the first page, so you probably expect it to show you new and better ways to compost. Great! The information, ideas, and projects here will certainly do that and a whole lot more, so find a comfortable chair and settle in for a while. This book will change the way you garden in such fundamental ways that a few seasons from now, you may look back at how you used to do things and wonder why it took so long for you to figure out that composting is, and always was, at the heart of your garden. Looking back, you may ask yourself: What was your heap doing hiding behind the bushes? Why were you carrying compost here and there instead of letting the process happen in places where the soil needs help? How many times did you worry that you were a composting failure because you never saw the faintest hint of steam rising from your heap? We used to ask ourselves the same questions, and this book is the result of that probing.

Right: ground beetles

You need not worry that hosting crickets in your compost will lead to unwanted visitors in your house — as long as you keep outdoor lighting to a minimum during the summer months. Like many other insects, crickets are attracted to light, so leaving outdoor lights on at night can lead to strange and unpredictable disturbances in the overall balance of helpful and harmful insects in your home landscape.

Bold Bacteria

Peas, beans, and other legumes use the services of soil-borne bacteria to process airborne nitrogen and store it in nodules on their roots. In 1813, noted British writer and inventor Sir Humphrey Davy observed that “legumes seem to prepare the ground for wheat,” but it was not until the 1880s that agricultural thinkers realized that nitrogen was involved. By then, most farmers had seen firsthand evidence that peas and beans grew better in soil where they had grown before, so by the early 1900s it was customary to take buckets of soil from places previously occupied by legumes, and scatter it into new planting furrows. These farmers were unknowingly inoculating their soil with beneficial bacteria, which remains a darn good idea (see Prime Your Soil for Legumes on page 22).

Tools for the Composter’s Garden

IF YOU ALREADY OWN some basic gardening tools, you are adequately equipped to ease into compost gardening, but as you adopt and refine compost gardening methods for your garden, you will want to add a few specialized tools to your collection.

Don’t get the idea that compost gardening requires a super-consumer mentality, because the opposite is true: Buying a lot of stuff to make compost runs contrary to the philosophy behind compost gardening, which is based on recycling on-site resources with minimal outside inputs. Certainly gardening catalogs and retailers offer a growing number of compost-related products — bins, tools, accessories, activators, and more — that promise to make the composting process better, faster, and easier. Some are worth their cost, and some are not. When you find yourself dazzled by shiny new tools and must-have potions, take a deep breath and remember that decomposition is a natural process that will happen whether or not you own a nifty tool.

The Composter’s Tool Shed

You should try compost gardening on for size before you start tooling up, because your tool needs will vary depending on your climate, available materials, and how much time you spend in your garden. Until you figure out which composting practices are the best fit for your site, soil, and personal gardening habits, it makes little sense to start acquiring special equipment.

Trusty Old Friends

The tools and equipment described in this chapter are things that we’ve found useful in creating and tending our own compost gardens and learning from the work of many other innovative, resourceful gardeners who know compost. When appropriate, we use recycled or “repurposed” items in the place of buying hard-to-get specialty items, and we encourage you to do the same. It’s fun to buy new tools, but it can be more satisfying to build rich, healthy soil using tools you already own or can pick up for a fraction of their original price at yard sales, farm sales, thrift stores, or flea markets.

And then there are treasured tools, like the old knife with your grandfather’s initials carved into the wooden handle, or the hoe you found in the garage while helping your parents move from your childhood home. Sometimes simply carrying the pocketknife your son bought you for a Father’s Day gift is all it takes to turn a good gardening day into a great one.

Finding Great Tools

There will be times when you decide that the best thing to do is to pay retail price for a tool, but hardware stores, garden centers, and mail-order catalogs are not the only places to get good tools to facilitate composting. Balance your new tool purchases with efforts to get perfectly good used tools that are in need of new homes. Whether you’re looking for the perfect tool to solve a perplexing problem or need to expand your tool inventory, here are some local tool sources that should not be overlooked.


Along with working garden tools, you should outfit yourself appropriately to protect yourself from accidental injury.

Five Foundation Tools for Your Composter’s Garden

The list of composting tools you will need on a dayin and day-out basis is surprisingly short — a spade, a garden fork, a hoe, a leaf rake, and a metal file for renewing sharp tool edges as often as needed. All come in a range of models, with sizes, shapes, and weights to meet your physical and composting needs.

Spades and Shovels

Whether you call a spade a spade, or call it a shovel, has little to do with which tool, technically speaking, it is. The two words vary in regional dialects (Barbara calls hers a shovel, but to Deb it’s a spade), but what you call your digging thing does not matter if the tool does what you need it to do. Terminology in this matter is better left to folks who have time to argue the semantics and physical features of shovels and spades. Meanwhile, we have compost to tend! Spade or shovel blades may have a rounded shield shape with a distinct point, the cutting edge may be rounded, or it may be a flat blade with squared edges. The various shapes are suited to various tasks. To keep any spade or shovel in good working order, keep a file handy (see page 179) to use when restoring its edge to shiny sharpness.

Deb’s Diary

I was mildly offended, some years ago, when my husband presented me with a small-bladed shovel bearing the label “Lady Gardener” on its long wooden handle. It was nice of him to choose a gift in tune with my favorite activities, but I couldn’t help wondering if he thought I was too delicate to manage full-sized tools. So I was pleasantly surprised when I eventually took up the shovel and found it well suited to any number of gardening jobs, including composting. One of my compost bins has a small door at its base for removing finished compost from the bottom of the pile. My full-sized shovel’s blade barely fits through that door, but my “lady” shovel enters with ease and her lovely long handle lets me scoop out as much compost as I need. She also saves me from myself when I’m moving compost or soil around, by allowing me to lift only dainty “bites” that don’t overtax my back and shoulders. That small blade is just right for adding and subtracting plants from existing perennial beds, too, and it slips easily into the soil when I’m digging new holes for spot composting or planting. I guess Mom was right when she told me I should be more ladylike!

The classic hoe has a rectangular metal head fixed at roughly 90 degrees to the handle; these types of hoes may be sold as planter, nursery, or grubbing hoes. Hoes with specialized blades — circular, stirrup (also called action), warren, goosefoot, and other shapes — are great for weeding but not as well suited for preparing compost ingredients. Their cutting edges tend to be in the wrong position for efficient chopping, and their blades may be too small or narrow to tolerate heavy use, so you may ding or bend them to ruination if you’re not careful. Why risk it? Stick with a plain old hoe for compost work, and keep your sharpening file handy. When a hoe is used as a compost chopper, a sharp edge is essential. You’ll see. Once you discover how well a sharp hoe chops, you’ll touch up that edge every chance you get.
Leaf Rakes

If leaves are the most abundant high-carbon brown material generated in your yard, you need a good rake to make leaf gathering as easy and efficient as possible. You also can use a leaf rake to gather clumps of grass clippings or to remove old mulches and spread new ones. Look for a well-balanced tool that feels right when you stand in raking position. Consider it a failed fitting if you feel like the rake’s head is pulling you forward (most of your energy will go into pulling the rake in the other direction).

Tools for Transporting Materials

Without realizing it, you may spend as much time moving garden-related “stuff” around as you do on actual gardening tasks. Depending on your day’s gardening agenda, you’ll need to get out the tools you’ll use, and various composting materials, and pots and plants, and maybe even a “little one” strapped into an infant seat (our kids survived this nicely; babies love to go outside and watch their parents do interesting things). Clearly, efficiency counts when it comes to moving materials, equipment, or whatever else you deem essential for a certain task. Even though compost gardening reduces much of the back-and-forth associated with traditional out-of-the-way composting, you’ll still find plenty of things you need to move, so you’ll need good ways to move them. For compost gardeners, this translates into a need for some sort of wheeled conveyance — typically a garden cart or wheelbarrow — accompanied by a collection of buckets, tarps, and bins.

Deb’s Diary

Whether I’m settling in for a weeding session on a summer morning, or looking at an afternoon of leaf-raking in the fall, the one tool I’m sure to have on hand is my tarp. The current model is my third “official” gardening tarp, and compared to the sheets and shower curtains I’ve used in the past, it’s deluxe — a sturdy 6’ x 6’ (1.83 x 1.83 m) sheet of tear-resistant, woven polyethylene with a strap handle at each corner. With the help of two metal carabiner-style clips that came with it, the handles can be fastened together to form a loose sack.

My tarp holds heaps of weeds, piles of prunings, and mountains (relatively speaking) of leaves. Sometimes it gets thrown over lawn furniture to keep it dry through a passing shower, and sometimes I use it as a drop cloth when I’m potting up plants in containers. Instead of sweeping up, I can drag the mess to the closest compost project. Given the choice between lifting and dragging, I’ll drag every time.

It’s hard to kill a good tarp, so my old tarps are still around. One protects a curing compost pile from exposure to the elements, while the other blocks weed growth in my garden path and provides shelter for a healthy population of crickets and earthworms.

Tarps and Slings

Also called drag sheets or ground cloths, the tarps sold for use in the garden are related to, but sturdier than, those meant solely for covering wood piles or leaks in your roof. A tarp makes a hard-to-miss target for collecting pulled weeds, or you can use one as a mobile dumping station for your lawn mower’s bagger. In fall, a tarp becomes the ultimate leaf-gathering tool. Commercially available garden tarps often include useful features, such as reinforced handles and snap clips, but old sheets, blankets, bedspreads, draperies, or shower curtains can enjoy second lives as garden tarps.

If you fasten the opposite ends of a tarp or sturdy piece of cloth to long pieces of wood, you have a slightly different transporting device we call a Composter’s Sling (see page 82). Sooner or later, you will want to make at least two of these versatile garden helpers for collecting piles of tossed weeds or shredded leaves, or for moving materials from one composting project to another. When you’re not using them for moving materials, they make good shade covers for newly seeded beds, too.

Tools for Cutting and Chopping

The types of materials you use in your composting projects will determine which cutting and chopping tools you will find most useful. Power tools including a lawn mower, string trimmer, and leaf shredder will save time and work when gathering and processing specific materials, and you can read more about them in chapter 3. Here we will talk about the most useful hand tools for cutting, slicing, dicing, hacking, or otherwise chopping compost materials.

Scissors and Shears

Much like a pocketknife or utility knife, a small pair of scissors that fits into your back pocket is great for snipping strings, grooming plants, or cutting up paper or wet cardboard. A big pair of scissors or ready-for-retirement kitchen shears are useful for cutting compost materials into more manageable pieces, and they have no trouble cutting plastic fencing materials to size. For convenience, tie a piece of twine through the handle of your “trash” scissors or shears and hang them where you can find them easily when needed.

The same pruning shears you bought to shape up roses or other shrubs will prove handy for cutting woody or fibrous materials into compost-sized pieces. Resist the urge to use your good pruning shears for snipping twine or slicing the packing tape on a cardboard box, because you’ll only dull the blades and make them less useful for the precision cutting they’re meant to do. Come to think of it, cutting up random stuff is why you need a knife and a junky pair of scissors. Use your pruning shears only on compostable plant material, and only in a pinch.

Hand Scythe

If you grow lush, green Compost Crops to use in your projects (see Compost Fodder Crops on page 276), a hand scythe makes gathering them a snap. Its sharp, sickle-shaped blade also makes short work of other tasks, including cutting back tall weeds in spring or fading perennials in late fall. Whether long-handled or short, a scythe is a dangerous tool that should be kept where children can’t reach it. Fortunately, a scythe hung high on a shed wall looks cool.

Mattocks and Pulaskis

The term “mattock” is applied to a variety of multipurpose tools that feature a metal head mounted on an ax handle. The tool head typically includes a broad hoe blade on one end; the other end of the blade may be a pick (known as a pick mattock), a cultivator, or an ax (sometimes called a cutter mattock). The combination of ax blade and broad hoe is also known as a pulaski; these sturdy tools with intermediate-length handles are part of the equipment issued to U.S. Forest Service firefighters, and they are often used in the maintenance of hiking trails. Made to be swung like an ax, mattocks and pulaskis have plenty of uses in the composter’s garden. The hoe blade makes holes in a hurry when you must dig into hard, compacted soil, and it’s the best tool for chopping and mixing a big open heap of compost. The ax blade will cut tough stems into smaller pieces, and it’s perfect for chopping through roots (assuming the tree can spare them). A pick or tiller mattock may be used to loosen and aerate a pile as it’s turned, though the hoe blade usually does a better job.


On Sale
Feb 13, 2008
Page Count
320 pages

Deborah L. Martin

About the Author

A long-time compost enthusiast, Deb Martin enjoys trying new and different ways to transform organic materials into rich, soil-building goodness for the garden. From the busy binful of worms in her basement to the pallet-framed yard waste heap out back, she always has something rotten going on! A garden writer and editor for many years, Deb has contributed to numerous books and magazines, including Organic Life, Pennsylvania Gardener, and GROW: The Magazine of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and is co-author of The Complete Compost Gardening Guide.

Barbara Pleasant has written about organic gardening and self-sufficient living for more than 30 years. Her books include Starter Vegetable Gardens, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, The Gardener’s Bug Book, The Gardener’s Weed Book, and The Gardener’s Guide to Plant Diseases

Learn more about this author

Barbara Pleasant

Barbara Pleasant

About the Author

Barbara Pleasant has written about organic gardening and self-sufficient living for more than 30 years. Her books include Starter Vegetable Gardens, 2nd Edition, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, The Gardener’s Bug Book, The Gardener’s Weed Book, and The Gardener’s Guide to Plant Diseases

Learn more about this author