Composting: To Turn or Not To Turn?

Turning Up The Fork

Turning Up The Fork

If you have been reading this blog you know that my gardens have been thriving in the no till fashion of growing which means, for those of you who are new to this blog, that I grow without turning, tilling, compressing or in any other ways disturbing the soil in my gardens. This allows the myriad life forms in the soil to exist successfully which in turn means that my plants can take advantage of the natural Soil Food Web to feed themselves. I am free from buying and applying any fertilizer for plants, and they grow strong that way. I simply make sure to provide food for the soil organisms in the form of mulch (leaves, straw, hay, manure bits) and I add some compost once in the beginning of the growing season.

No till growing is relatively new to me. Just a few years ago I used to turn in the organic matter on top of my gardens before planting every fall, disturbing the soil organisms that had begun to colonize my soil throughout the long summer months.

So I quit all of that garden turning, and the result is fabulous. Now we are up to speed.

A few months ago while tending my booth at the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market I met a man who told me that he doesn’t bother to turn his compost. He simply makes a pile, and adds to it until it is large enough, and then moves on to the next pile. He said that by the time he has finished piling up his third compost pile the first one is ready to harvest. You can just imagine how hearing this has begun to work on my mind! Since then I have begun reading the book Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles by Ellen Sandbeck.
In that book she writes a few paragraphs about compost, in one, referencing studies done on large-scale compost piles in Quebec and Pennsylvania that showed unturned compost contained up to 13 percent more nitrogen than piles turned twice a week. “More nitrogen escapes as ammonia gas when compost piles are turned frequently. If the pile is left unturned microbes can convert the ammonia into a more stable form of nitrogen.” she writes.

I teach people how to compost. I have always turned compost, and I have instructed others to do the same as do publications on composting from most cooperative extensions. I learned that turning compost brings oxygen into the pile, and helps to chop and mix the components of the compost, but my compost piles are full of earthworms, other invertebrates and all sorts of fungi and bacteria. If those organisms are capable of thoroughly aerating and structuring my garden soil why would I imagine that they are not doing the same for my compost. Furthermore, I notice that when I turn my compost piles it is clear that I am disturbing the worms in there just like turning garden soil disturbs the earthworms there.

The conventional approach to composting is that we should turn our compost piles. I have already discarded the conventional approach to gardening: I won’t turn the soil. It occurs to me that it is past time to re-examine my approach to composting.

I have already begun to take a less aggressive approach to making compost. I have decided that once it is well mixed, and well on the way to curing I will no longer bother my compost except to harvest it. At the Community Garden at Heathcote Botanical Gardens where we have a 5 section compost bin we are no longer turning the last 2 sections. I expect as we observe our compost piles both at my home garden and at Heathcote we will probably further amend our approach to composting to better reflect our no till practices.

Is this exciting or what? I am going to have to turn my fork tines up, and use it more for photos, and less for work!