The Kind of Compost we want to Make!

Our approach to making compost and our inspiration to launch this cooperative composting project has a foundation in the following reality:

“Soils are created out of the mother substance by the influence of cosmic forces working through fluctuations in climatic rhythms, temperature, rainfall, splitting and erosion. These forces are usually labeled mechanical (and chemical) forces. Most soil formation is, however, the direct result of living organisms working to create the proper living conditions for themselves! …. wherever there is soil, living organisms have preceded it … “

“We see how plants actively work at creating for themselves the soil they need. … However, (the plants own work of chemical transformation and) the roots are not alone in this soil building process; animal manures with their complex enzymes are constantly modifying the plant growth, and an astronomical number of microorganisms in the edaphon support these living processes.”

“In a teaspoon of good soil there are literally billions of microorganisms carrying on life functions of continuous metabolism, respiration, reproduction, dying, excreting hormones and enzymes, exchanging cations and anions, responding to cosmic influences such as lunar phases and the daily and yearly solar cycles, and so on.”

– above quoted from Wolf D. Storl in Culture and Horticulture, pgs 166 – 168

It can come as a thunderous shock when you open a crack or when one gets wacked open and you find the courage to look straight at the tragic mistakes triggered by mankind’s presumption that we humans can live here independent of the natural world’s unfailing offers of assistance. First a thunderous shock then a debilitating nausea.

On the other hand is the feeling of deep satisfaction that comes with using the finished products, so to speak, that The Island Cooperative Compost Project seeks to generate. These are substances that people have been involved in creating for thousands of years with the integral assistance of the vast intelligence of nature.

The human involvement in the process of making compost is one of the very special examples of our ‘use’ of natural forces that not only supports but enhances the creative power woven through everything that exists.

The teeming universe of organisms that make real soil what it is – alive – is ever ready to accept our assistance as we work to gently accelerate the alchemy in decaying organic material returning to life as soil.

Rather than just arriving at aged, partially decomposed material that may give a short term one season limited fertility boost – it is a much better investment of time and energy to work towards a broad spectrum finished compost high in stable humus which contributes to the long term structural stability of the soil.

Decomposing materials can be blended and guided towards the natural formation of stable humus – by care with moisture content, air supply, carbon nitrogen ratio and the best possible, given the other needs of that pile, conditions for a thriving earthworm population.

If the various conditions are balanced successfully you arrive at compost that can give the soil readily available new supplies of core nutrients for the near term but also strengthen the soil for years to come through the addition of high percentages of stable humus. This accumulation over seasons is what builds the capacity of the soil to retain moisture, nutrients and minerals in a way that also holds them most efficiently available to growing plants.

Most importantly this more complete soil amendment mirrors the structural and nutrient balance that is present in soil which can readily renew and regenerate its own biological life across the growth and decay cycles of the seasons. The key for humans working in cooperation with the soil is to focus on strategies that specifically support soil’s own ability to renew itself.

You begin to see that the living systems of soil are predisposed to take immediate and full advantage of even the smallest amounts of compost with a high percentage of stable humus. Native, undisturbed soil ecosystems create their own supplies of stable humus and disturbed and depleted soil environments progressively lose their ability to create new stable humus, which is the foundation of the soil’s ability to regenerate its life. So it becomes a downward spiral.

But even badly compromised soil ecosystems retain a predisposition grab onto and use the humus in true compost not only as an immediate boost but also as a catalyst to restart its failing regenerative process. As if the stable humus from “man-made” compost, even in small amounts, is a re-seeding of the weak soil with live soil. Which spreads. Strength building on strength.


Martha’s Vineyard Horse Owners: we’re looking for YOU!

Greetings to all you horse owners on Martha’s Vineyard Island. Your animals and all the work you do to care for them are a highly valuable addition to the life and beauty of our community!

If you own one or two horses, a few, or a herd one of your regular chores is managing their manure. We would like to help with that work! It has been suggested by our preliminary research that there may be quite a few horse owners tucked away out there, on this magical island that is so much bigger and more diverse than its geographical size would indicate, who have manure that has not been removed or set up as effective compost piles.

If the time has come for you to do something about those reserves of horse manure we would like to talk with you about how we might help. Currently our ability to pick up and haul away large amounts of manure is limited but we can manage some. If you have a considerable amount and it is time for it to leave your property if you can arrange transport we can offer you a drop off site with convenient hours and a smaller tipping fee than anywhere else on the island!

And most importantly you will know that it is being transformed into high quality humus-rich compost that will be used to strengthen soil somewhere on Martha’s Vineyard! For making quality compost from your horse manure we can offer help with two other options as well.

If you feel you now have the time and interest to do some serious composting yourself on your property we can help get you started with a site visit to evaluate your manure management needs and give you suggestions on how to best compost the manure for your situation.

If you have a large amount of stockpiled manure and would would like to have the use of some high quality compost but also work towards removing the manure from your land we can come on site and “seed” your big old pile of manure to get it started composting again correctly, even through the winter, and in the spring arrange to harvest the finished manure and have the rest removed from your land.

Please call Chris Riger: 508 560 2019 to inquire about any of the services above.

And please remember that your horses are supported by the soil under their feet and by the overall well being of our island economy and community – which is dependent on how wisely we use our resources. Effectively and properly composting all possible organic waste materials for use to strengthen the fertility and stability of all our soils is a wise use of these resources. One of the true ways to take our own future into our own hands!

Thank You!

Falling Leaves: Calling all Martha’s Vineyard Landscapers, Lawn Maintenance folks, and Homeowners!

Last night, with the deepest frost yet this fall, we saw a big acceleration of the release of leaves by our trees! Did you know that old leaves don’t just fall off the trees when they are done working but that the tree itself has to release them – literally push them off? That is why when a branch or a tree is killed while it is still in leaf you will see the brown, dry, withered leaves stay on the branches for a long while through wind, rain, etc.

The Island Cooperative Compost Project to take some pressure off our dumps and other disposal sites is arranging to take delivery of raked leaves, grass clippings, cleared vegetation and chipped branches and twigs. We have an up-island site available now and are working to confirm a mid-island site.

For the up-island site now you can bring your leaves, etc. 24/7 – any time of day! Because our project is just getting off the ground and needs all the support we can muster we would like to get a modest tipping fee for the drop off. However, it will be be competitive with any other such fees on the Island and if it is really beyond your means we will take the material regardless. Also, we hope our sites will be more convenient for you to use!

To get directions and arrange for drop-off at the up-island site please call Chris Riger: 508 560 2019    Thank you!

Our project is also available, on a limited basis, to offer the service of raking your leaves and hauling them away. Again please call the number above to inquire about that service.

To Turn or NOT to Turn?

*Compost Myths: To Turn or Not to Turn, that is the Question

from The Humanure Handbook
by Joseph Jenkins

What is one of the first things to come to mind when one thinks of compost? Turning the pile. Turn, turn, turn, has become the mantra of composters worldwide. Early researchers who wrote seminal works in the composting field, such as Gotaas, Rodale, and many others, emphasize turning compost piles, almost obsessively so…..

…… A large industry has emerged from this philosophy, one which manufactures expensive compost turning equipment, and a lot of money, energy, and expense goes into making sure compost is turned regularly. To some compost professionals, the suggestion that compost doesn’t need to be turned at all is utter blasphemy.
Of course you have to turn it
— it’s a compost pile, for heaven’s sake.

Or do you?  Well, in fact, NO, you don’t, especially if you’re a backyard composter, and not even if you’re a large scale composter. The perceived need to turn compost is one of the myths of composting.

Turning compost potentially serves four basic purposes. First, turning is supposed to add oxygen to the compost pile, which is supposed to be good for the aerobic microorganisms. We are warned that if we do not turn our compost, it will become anaerobic and smell bad, attract rats and flies, and make us into social pariahs in our neighborhoods. Second, turning the compost ensures that all parts of the pile are subjected to the high internal heat, thereby ensuring total pathogen death, and yielding a hygienically safe, finished compost. Third, the more we turn the compost, the more it becomes chopped and mixed, and the better it looks when finished, rendering it more marketable. Fourth, frequent turning can speed up the composting process. Since backyard composters don’t actually market their compost, usually don’t care if it’s finely granulated or somewhat coarse, and usually have no good reason to be in a hurry, we can eliminate the last two reasons for turning compost right off the bat. Let’s look at the first two.

Aeration is necessary for aerobic compost, which is what we want. There are numerous ways to aerate a compost pile. One is to force air into or through the pile using fans, which is common at large-scale composting operations, where air is sucked from under the compost piles and out through a biofilter. The suction causes air to seep into the organic mass through the top, thereby keeping it aerated. However, this air flow is more often than not a method for trying to reduce the temperature of the compost, because the exhaust air draws quite a bit of heat away from the compost pile. Mechanical aeration is never a need of the backyard composter, and is limited to large scale composting operations where the piles are so big they can smother themselves if not subjected to forced aeration.

Aeration can also be achieved by poking holes in the compost, driving pipes into it, and generally impaling it. This seems to be popular among some backyard composters. A third way is to physically turn the pile. A fourth, largely ignored way, however, is to build the pile so that tiny interstitial air spaces are trapped in the compost. This is done by using coarse materials in the compost, such as hay, straw, weeds, and the like. When a compost pile is properly constructed, no additional aeration will be needed. Even the organic gardening pros admit that, “good compost can be made without turning by hand if the materials are carefully layered in the heap which is well-ventilated and has the right moisture content.”  (45)

This is especially true for “continuous compost,” which is different from “batch compost.” Batch compost is made from a batch of material that is composted all at once. This is what commercial composters do — they get a dumptruck load of garbage or sewage sludge from the municipality and compost it in one big pile. Backyard composters, especially humanure composters, produce organic residues daily, a little at a time, and rarely, if ever, in big batches. Therefore, continuous composters add material continuously to a compost pile, usually by putting the fresh material on the top. This causes the thermophilic activity to be in the upper part of the pile, while the thermophilically “spent” part of the compost sinks lower and lower to be worked on by fungi, actinomycetes, earthworms, and lots of other things. Turning continuous compost dilutes the thermophilic layer with the spent layers and can quite abruptly stop all thermophilic activity.

Researchers have measured oxygen levels in large-scale windrow composting operations (a windrow is a long, narrow pile of compost). One reported, “Oxygen concentration measurements taken within the windrows during the most active stage of the composting process, showed that within fifteen minutes after turning the windrow — supposedly aerating it — the oxygen content was already depleted.” (46) Other researchers compared the oxygen levels of large, turned and unturned batch compost piles, and have come to the conclusion that compost piles are largely self-aerated. “The effect of pile turning was to refresh oxygen content, on average for [only] 1.5 hours (above the 10% level), after which it dropped to less than 5% and in most cases to 2% during the active phase of composting . . . Even with no turning, all piles eventually resolve their oxygen tension as maturity approaches, indicating that self-aeration alone can adequately furnish the composting process . . . In other words, turning the piles has a temporal but little sustained influence on oxygen levels.” These trials compared compost that was not turned, bucket turned, turned once every two weeks, and turned twice a week. (47)

* Compost Myths: To Turn Or Not To Turn, That Is The Question is from Chapter 3 of The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins.  ©1999 Joseph C. Jenkins. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
2nd Ed. Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099 |
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For us at the Island Cooperative Compost Project our ruling priority and criteria is to do the work we do in such a way as to maximize supportive conditions for all of nature’s own soil builders and compost makers to be able to do their vital work of making possible our continued life on earth.

Turning a compost pile inside out and upside down, just as turning soil in a garden, pasture or hay field drastically – severely interrupts and can destroy the ability of the forces of nature to do their fertility renewing work. All those creatures have their own home soil strata in which they would rather live and do their work!

So we feel it is worth the extra time and effort to plan for and build our compost piles with just the right mix and stratification of materials to avoid the need to turn the pile. We are also developing methods of inserting airway aids in the piles – including in advance when we layout the ground area to be used for the windrow compost piles – so that the piles can be built around them in a user friendly way and maintain additional pathways for oxygenation till the compost is mature.