Friday, October 09, 2009

Compost Hole Method and the possibility of rats

A friend who I introduced to the compost hole method of gardening recently asked about the possibility of it attracting rats. What follows is my answer.

As long as you have at least four inches of soil over the compostables, you shouldn't have a problem with rats. Put anything that actually smells like food in the very bottom of the hole, cover with a little dirt, then throw in the scraps that haven't been cooked, and cover with dirt. An open pile is more likely to attract rats, and those compost bin thingies are a whole other issue in themselves. If you find that you are attracting rats, even with your compost covered with four inches of dirt—you probably have a rat overpopulation problem and the poor things are dang hungry. If you have a rat problem, it is useful to reflect on natural nutrient cycles and the rats place in the food web. In nature, no nutrient is allowed to go to waste. The buildup of toxins that would happen in the environment by organic matters piling up and rotting is eliminated by creatures like rats. It is their job to clean up anything in excess, anything that might rot. However, all animals, unless they are kept in check by a predator, will reproduce to the limit of the food supply—and beyond. Basically, the rats, which may not have appropriate predators in urban environments, will keep reproducing until they begin starving. In the mean time, they are going to be eating everything that they can see or smell. If rats are digging up your compost, they are very hungry. It might be time to get a big cat, a rat terrier, or some native snakes. You need predators to keep the ecosystem in balance.

Now, about those compost bin thingies. Most commercial compost bins really are just a place to keep rotting vegetable matter. They usually aren't big enough to really get hot and truly compost, and most people just throw a bunch of wet food waste in there anyway. To truly make compost, you need a balanced combination of dry matter and wet matter—so material isn’t sodden, and a balanced ratio of carbonaceous matter (about 60%) to nitrogen rich matter (about 40%). You also need to build the pile carefully, so there is plenty of air circulation within the pile. The carefully thought out inclusion of sticks, cardboard, shredded paper, and other porous material is necessary to the healthy functioning of a compost pile. The pile needs to be about four feet by four feet, and eventually four feet high, and it needs to be carefully managed for moisture content and air pathways. (I have a book in progress called “One Day at a Time in the Garden, a Recovery Plan for the Planet.” I will be sharing tips on tending the compost pile in that book. If you start now by reading “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide,” by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin, Story Publishing you will be well on your way to really utilizing my tips when the book comes out. The thing I don’t find adequate about the “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide,” is that they don’t address the environmental hazards of an improperly maintained compost pile—and some of their options are clearly improper. Anyway, start with their book, use the tips here, and then read my book when it comes out. In the mean time ask questions if you have any. You will soon be an expert on making and tending a healthy compost pile. {Or skip the pile entirely and use the Compost Hole Method!})

Most people are not really making compost in their bins or piles . . . they are making sludge. This sludge, as it rots, releases methane and nitrogen into the atmosphere—both are virulent green house gasses. The sludge also leaches nitrogen into the soil and potentially into ground water where it can form toxic compounds and encourage disease causing organisms. And it can travel, with the ground water, to streams and rivers where it is a pollutant which feeds alga blooms and interferes with natural ecosystems. If that wasn’t enough, the anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition of organic matter is known to foster potential disease casing organisms, and the resultant break down compounds of this rotting sludge can also be toxic. Composting is a good thing, just make sure that what you are doing is really making compost.

The compost hole method, not only avoids releasing nitrogen and methane into the atmosphere, avoids leaching nutrients and toxins into the soil and ground water, it gets you to plant, and therefore eat fresh from the garden, year around. (At least in the places the weather allows for that.) Gardening, instead of being an event that starts and ends, becomes tied to your life. You make compostables simply by living, then you go out to the garden and reflect on what you want to plant and where the best spot is. While you do this, you observe the life of the garden and what it needs from you—as its steward. You make mental (or actual) notes about what you need to do. Then you dig a hole-- considering the roots and nutritional needs of established plants, the light and moisture needs of what you are going to plant, as well as where the plant will best contribute to the life of the garden.

Now, you put your compostables into the hole—loosely to provide plenty of air space and habitat for worms and micro-organisms. If you can see worms or sow bugs in your pile of dirt, you carefully place them on your loose compost, and cover with an inch or two of loose dirt. Next, in a perfect world, you are going to look for some dry material to layer in with the dirt. If you have pets in the house it might be time to sweep the floors to capture shed hair, if there are dried leaves or twigs around the garden you might use them. All these things contain nutrients and structure that will add food and habitat for micro-organisms to your soil. They will create pathways for roots and worms to follow, contribute to soil tilth, and to the nutrient cycle. As you layer the dirt, loosely, with dry organic matter, break up any clumps. Mound the dirt loosely over the hole. Flatten the top, and create a tiny berm around the edges. Plant a few seeds in the center and make a plant label out of a recycled take-out cup or other container. Mark the spot with a crown of sticks to keep cats and birds from disturbing your soil. Sprinkle lightly with enough water to just moisten the surface, or wait for rain. If you choose to water, do so very sparingly. You just want to keep the surface moist enough for the seeds to germinate and begin to grow. Once the plants begin to get established, they will tell you when they need more water. Within a few weeks they will sink their roots down into the moist compost, and they will probably need very little supplemental irrigation.

When you live, garden, compost, and eat in this model, you can’t help but realize that we are all part of a nutrient cycle. Do a little reading about nutrient cycles and civilizations—say Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (published by Viking) and you will begin to realize how imperiled our nutrient cycle’s are. Our lives depend on topsoil, and commercial agriculture is destroying our top soils at very alarming rates. This brings me to mention my new power point program, “Decolonizing Soil,” which takes a look at the problem, as well as solutions we can all begin applying today. (See: )

So, I hope this answers your questions about rats and compost—as well as giving you tips on finding more information. Eventually I will be putting some of the information in this note together for a power point presentation: “Gardening with Worms, and other Soil Building Practices,” but not today. I have other projects waiting for me today, including some compost to bury!

Here are links to more of my writing on “The Compost Hole Method,” which is not the official name of what I do, but it will work for now:
You will find links to even more information at the second link posted above.

Photos of the “Compost Hole Method” are available here:
If you check out my other photo albums you will find garden shots where the plants were all grown with this method.

For direct links to the various albums see:

Copyright 2009 Harvest McCampbell