The how-to on composting from Martha’s Vineyard gardeners

A composter available at SBS The Grain Store, with a spout to siphon compost tea, which can be poured directly on plants. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

It’s hard to imagine a better way to see recycling in action, in your own home, than to turn your organic discards into nutrient rich soil simply by maintaining a compost site. Composting is pretty much a no brainer — pile up leaves and grass clippings, add some vegetable and other food waste, and let nature do its thing. And that’s really all you need to know, but there are some ways to make the process quicker, more efficient, neater, and even less smelly.

Composting may be the best way to not only save on trash disposal fees and take it easy on the environment, but also create a usable product thanks to nothing more than a natural chemical process.

Chris Wiley, owner of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury, explains what can be composted. “It involves biodegradable waste. It had to have been living — any grass and plant products, food that is plant related. We try to keep animal products out because it attracts rodents and other wildlife… What you generate is a very rich soil basically with a high level of organic matter.”

Ms. Wiley, a former biology teacher, explains the decomposition process that turns dead plant material into rich soil. “Fungi and bacteria are the decomposers that will break matter down into stuff that can be used by plants,” she says. “Because it is a living product it requires oxygen for respiration.” Therefore, she notes that although a compost pile will break down eventually with no maintenance, “It’s beneficial to turn the compost pile. It heats up. That’s the oxygenation process. Heat is a byproduct of the decomposition.” She suggests turning the compost as often as possible.

The ideal recipe for compost, according to Ms. Wiley, is a combination of half “brown” and half “green” material. Brown matter includes dried leaves and grass, sawdust, wood chips, and paper. Green materials include fresh grass and plant material, food scraps, and coffee grounds. Green materials will accelerate the composting process, making your pile heat up faster. “The hotter, the faster,” says Ms. Wiley. High heat levels will also kill off weed seeds that can infect any area where you use your compost.

Aside from creating extremely rich soil, compost is an excellent aerator. Ms. Wiley believes that, despite popular opinion, sand in soil does not make for good drainage. “It packs the soil down and creates denseness,” she says. “You’re better off lightening a soil with organic matter. Adding organic matter you’re lightening the soil so the roots can easily go through.”


Although, a simple pile — possibly surrounded by chicken wire to hold it together — is sufficient, there are a number of composters and composting aids on the market. Liz Packer, co-owner of SBS The Grain Store, whose mission is providing, “organic lawn and garden and farm solutions,” has noticed a marked increase of late in those inquiring about composting. According to her, the sustainability movement has not only attracted more home gardeners, it has also raised awareness of organic practices and interest in the entire biological process.

SBS carries a variety of all-inclusive composting devices, as well as wire and wooden compost cages and composting aids. Ms. Packer explains the advantages of enclosed composters: “It keeps the compost contained and tidy and keeps animals out of it.”

The recycled plastic units that they sell are drum tumblers, which make it easy to continually aerate the contents, making it possible to produce usable compost in as little as two weeks. When ready, the drums can be rolled off their base right to the spot where you want to compost. Some models have a spout to siphon off the nutrient rich compost tea that can be put directly on plants — absorbing through the foliage. The units sell for around $200 to $300.

Ms. Packer suggests adding compost starter, especially to enclosed units where the compost is isolated from free-roaming organisms and earthworms. The starter, which contains microbe organisms, inoculates the material thereby accelerating the decomposition process. “As yeast is to bread, compost starter is to composting. In the old days you took a scoop of your neighbors’ compost to start your own,” she says.

“You need to inoculate,” says Ms. Packer. “You don’t want your compost to get anaerobic.” Anaerobic compost is made up of organisms that don’t thrive on oxygen and break down very slowly, often causing unpleasant odors. “Perfect compost is sweet-smelling,” says Ms. Packer. Ms. Wiley has a suggestion for maintaining an inoffensive compost pile. “If it gets smelly it could have to do with the PH getting low. You can add some lime. It doesn’t have to be smelly.”

For the less serious composter, SBS now offers a compost sack made of reusable, breathable fabric for $40. For those wanting to take their composting to the next level, the store also carries a worm composter, which is essentially a compost-fed word farm. “Worm castings are the ultimate compost,” notes Ms. Packer.

Ms. Packer, who is also the owner/operator of Spring Moon Farm, is a firm believer in composting. “You’re recycling products that would otherwise end up in a landfill. It has to get trucked off-Island and it costs money to make it go away.” She adds, “You pay it forward with compost.”

If you want to learn more about composting, Vineyard Gardens will be offering a talk on the subject, as part of their free Saturday lecture series, on Saturday, May 14 at 11 am. Attendees will receive a coupon good for 50% off on compost. For more information, call 508-693-8511.