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Organic Gardening Tips – Organic Composting

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One of the things I am really passionate about is garden composting.  When I wrote about vegetable garden planning I advised you to make room for a garden composter, right from the start.  When growing organic vegetables, recycling garden waste into garden compost is a critical part of the whole process.  But does it need to be made by organic composting?

What is Organic Composting?

Well let me start by saying that sadly ‘organic composting’ is a bit of a misnomer.  With the growth in the organic and ‘grow your own’ movements organic composting is a term that has emerged, which really means very little!

Composting is the process of encouraging the aerobic decomposition of organic matter.  Organic matter is simply anything with a carbon base which was once, or is now, alive.  So all living organisms are organic.

Organic is a term which has taken on so much more meaning in more recent years, but technically any old apple, whether sprayed with synthetic pesticides or not, is organic matter.  So, you see all composting is organic composting because the whole aim is to compost carbon based life (plants, animal waste etc).

So what is ‘organic composting?’, it is plain old garden composting pure and simple!

But, I Want to Grow Organic Vegetables – Do I Need Organic Compost?

Well, even if you are selling certified organic produce there is some flexibility in the matter you can compost.  Ideally it would all be food or animal waste from crops or herds reared organically.   Ideally, all this organic matter would come from the same plot in a never-ending cycle of growth, consumption and composting.  Once you start to take matter away from a plot of land, such as by selling the produce, the plot is losing fertility which needs replacing from outside.  Relying on organically produced crops to re-fertilise means that many organic farmers would not have access to enough composting material.  So organisations like the Soil Association allow matter from non-organic sources to be brought in and composted by the organic farmer.

So officially to grow organic vegetables you do not need to compost only organically produced matter.  The great thing about garden composting is that it breaks down all the constituents of the garden waste.  Even the unwanted bits are eventually broken down.

So for example poultry manure from a conventional (non-organic) poultry farm will initially contain residues of medicinal compounds fed to the birds.  But after three to six months those residues will have broken up and disappeared from your garden compost.  So when you spread this garden compost on your vegetable plot you will not be feeding your plants chemical residues.

To really grow your own 100% organic produce you would need to recycle all the waste produced on your plot, and never allow any produce to leave the plot.  The completely sealed little ecosystem of your plot would give up its nutrients via food to you and your livestock.  Then, all their waste and yours would go back into feeding the land.  Although a lovely ideal, for most organic vegetable growers it is far from practical.

But, I’m REALLY Green and Organic!

Well, in that case, only compost that matter which you are certain came from organically reared livestock or crops.  But, that will mean either only ever buying organic everything, or else wasting the kitchen scraps from non-organic produce.

One thing it is easy to get hold of nowadays is an Organic Compost Activator (or compost accelerator).  These products give your garden composter a bit of a ‘kick start’, providing enzymes, bacteria and nitrogen to start the decomposition process going.

As much as I admire your principles, back in my world I cannot rely on my loo-paper or newspapers coming from organically grown trees.  Indeed my newspapers are covered in chemical based inks – should I avoid putting those on my garden composter too?  Some people do, but I see that as a complete waste of an available resource.

My opinion would be that being ‘Green’ and ‘Eco Friendly’ is more important as a principle than being ‘Organic’.  The most Eco friendly thing you can do with a garden composter is make sure you use it to recycle all your garden waste and kitchen scraps (plus all paper/card/etc).  I also suggest you make your compost heap a home for the garden and kitchen waste of any friends or neighbours without their own, regardless of whether they only buy 100% organic apples!

The fact is most vegetable growers and organic farmers just do not produce enough of their own organic waste to produce enough organic compost to keep their plot fed.  In an ideal world, when planning a vegetable garden, we would incorporate livestock and grain crops to allow us to be self sufficient.  Recycling ALL the waste from plants, animals and humans on the small holding might be just enough to keep the balance of your plot healthy.  But without a large plot we will need to bring in some feed for ourselves or our livestock.  If all this food resource were organic there is no way we could sustain ourselves.  Better, I think to look at resources and use them wisely.

If your neighbour does not want to compost his hens bedding, whether or not his hens are fed organic feeds, the sensible and ‘green’ thing to do is throw that bedding on your compost heap.

When vegetable garden planning, organically make sure your principles do not prohibit a sustainable ecosystem on your plot of land.  Remember your garden composter is trying to make you organic compost so long as you feed it enough matter, wherever that matter comes from.

Organic Composting & Organic Gardening Tips

Obviously the degree of importance you place on chemical residues, sustainability and food miles may be very different from mine, or anyone else’s.  My top organic gardening tips are:

  1. Organic Composting is ideal but very rarely practical.  Do not worry about it, there are much more important issues on your vegetable plot!
  2. Do not worry about organic gardening tips you cannot live up to.  Be as organic, green and Eco-friendly (or not) as you like in your vegetable garden planning.  Everything you grow is greener than that shipped across country by someone else, even if you are a fan of chemical sprays (tut tut)!
  3. Do what you can, what is practical and what is not wasteful in your vegetable garden planning.  The chances are, as the years progress you will automatically be saving more seed and using heritage varieties and so on.  For now, just remember growing organic vegetables is a personal choice and since all vegetables are organic matter anyway, you decide the degree of ‘Organic’ or ‘Eco Friendly’ you wish to achieve.

Is the Catalan Garden Organic?

Well, to my mind it is.  We do not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.  But not all our seeds or plants come from certified organic sources.  We simply could not afford to grow as much food for ourselves if it was.  We also bring in non-organic poultry manure occasionally.  It is local and free so seems much more appropriate than trying to locate organic manure which in these parts is very scarce.

But after growing here without artificial intervention I consider the end product that I consume to be organic, though for others it may not be the case.  Don’t forget when vegetable garden planning that each plot is unique.  Your vegetable plot should be right for you, forget about what you feel you should be doing and get on with what you can do.

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6 Comments

  1. Jan says:

    I’ve just been reading all your posts that I’ve missed – we’ve had a very hectic time this last month! Sorry to hear about the lack of waffle 🙂 but I bet a bit will show from time to time!

  2. All the waffle talk has inspired me to find a recipe and make some!

  3. Liz says:

    We compost all waste that we can on our allotment but that isn’t enough to keep the soil up to scratch. To top this up I get a truck of organic manure from my friend’s smallholding each year which is mainly horse muck with a little bit of cow thrown in. Be careful sourcing manure from unknown sources though – I always like to check the fields where the animals have been grazing and what hay they are eating because any weeds that they have eaten will be brought along with the muck!
    Love your blog! Very jealous of you out there is Catalunya! We were in Sant Maurici national park a year or tow ago walking in the mountains – what a beautiful part of Spain!

  4. gintoino says:

    Very good post. I agree with all you wrote. I too consider myself to be an organic gardener and my veggetables to be organic, but I throw everything compostable into the compost hip including newspapper, card and all the vegetable scraps I can get from my friends and family. Also my chickens are fed with nonorganic food and I use their manure . I think this is way better than letting all that stuff go to waste into the garbage bin

  5. […] But, as far as possible you should put back, whatever you take from your vegetable garden.  Organic composting is the first priority, to ensure serious volumes of humus and organic nutrients can be used to […]

  6. Lynn Blevins says:

    Interesting how the organic food movement has changed the meaning of the word organic for most of us. From my college days I think of organic as carbon-carbon bonds (as in organic chemistry), but now we all think of it as “not sprayed”.

    If you want to get technical about the phrase “organic composting” I would think that it means composting with all materials that are grown or raised organically (as in certified organic). Using the word “organic” to imply “of plant or animal orgin” or “containing carbon bonds” isn’t necessary since composting itself requires such materials.

    In regards to synthetics in compost, some will break down completely or to inert substances, but some will not. For example, if you introduce a synthetic that contains a heavy metal into your compost bin the heavy metal will still be there. This is why I don’t put paper with colored ink, particularly conventional wrapping paper, in the compost (some inks contain metals which can help make colors vibrant). Such paper is better off recycled. That’s my waste management style, anyway.

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