The Fine Art of Composting


If you talk to a vintner, they are obsessed with soil. The soil composition is what makes the grape. The art of growing naturally is the art of understanding soil. Soil is like a community. Its members are bacteria, microbes, fungi and worms that are so numerous, they’re uncountable and living in a state of homeostasis that is as fascinating as it is miraculous.

No chemical you can buy can come close to compost in a garden. It not only fertilizes the soil; it aerates it and holds moisture. Soil is an organism. Artificial fertilizers kill organisms. Compost feeds them. There are certain things you grow in compost, like potatoes, carrots, garlic, where you won’t believe the yields and quality.

I’m not one who obsesses easily, but I must admit, I was obsessed with composting. We had horses and as the average horse puts out about 1,500 pounds of manure a year, every farm has a problem.

This post is not an instructional manual on composting. What you compost will depend on where you are and what your sources of organic matter are, but let me just say this. Some of my best composting was in the dead of winter in 30 degree temperatures in western New York.

Let’s get right to the skinny. If you think of composting as “rotting”, you’ll always be a rookie. Composting is a digestive process. Organisms are eating and giving off heat and well, compost. Think of it like bee keeping. You have to feed the organisms and make sure they have enough water and oxygen. If you don’t, they’ll die.

In my opinion, what’s called cold composting is not optimum. It’s takes too long, the compost is chunky, it’s hard to incorporate into the soil, you don’t get much and its nutritional value to plants is negligible. Of course, the worse thing is if you incorporate kitchen waste in cold compost, you could get rats.

With “hot composting, (getting and maintaining 120 degree internal temperatures) it’s fast, typically 6-8 weeks, you get huge volumes, you can compost pretty much anything organic and the nutritional value to your garden is off the charts. Also, the high temperature kills weed seeds, which is critical to organic growers.

Make no mistake, it’s physical labor. You have to turn the pile, which is going to be 3-5 feet high, and it’s heavy. Typically, you aerate with a pitchfork. There’s really no easy way to do it without spending so much money that it’s not worth the cost. You also have to monitor the heat.

I was composting sawdust and horse manure. (Once the pile “comes alive”,  you don’t need additional manure. You can also buy commercial microbes so you don’t need manure at all.) My compost piles heated up to about 120 degrees in phase one. This lasted about two weeks. After that, the temperature would drop to 100 and stay there until all the organic matter was composted. At that point it would be warm and have the consistency of extremely soft soil. Note: The only difference between summer and winter is in the summer, the pile dries out faster. In the winter, I “watered” the compost by piling snow on top. It would melt down.

To me, composting was a lifestyle. Between my compost pile and garden, I was perpetually thin, which was amazing since I had a case of iced down beer in the garden all summer and ate virtually anything I wanted. I wasn’t trying to lose weight or eat healthy. I just loved being outside digging in the dirt and having a beer or a glass of wine with a neighbor.

My inspiration was a friend, an old Italian mason from Naples named Virgil. He was the happiest man I ever met. He taught me how to make wine, (my wine was awful.) and grow garlic, but more importantly, he taught me how to live. He taught me that it didn’t matter if my compost pile died, the garlic didn’t come up or the wine tasted like vinegar. Life isn’t a horserace. It’s an art form. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes your canvas goes in the burn pile. It doesn’t matter. All that matters, is that you don’t let is just go by.

Paul Schwartzmeyer

Medellin, Colombia.


  • You don’t have to buy anything to compost. Go to any horse farm and they’ll be more than happy to let you take all the manure you want. In fact, one farm by my house allowed people to compost right at the farm. Also, a good place is university equestrian centers. My daughter’s college, Mount Holyoke had 40 horses. They generated a virtual mountain of manure.
  • IMO, the best thing to compost is sawdust. It’s dense and very high in hydrogen and carbon. At any sawmill, you can typically buy sawdust for $10-15 a pickup load. Two other great things are seaweed and grass, but don’t let the grass dry.
  • The optimum size pile for me was 3-5 feet high and 10 feet long to start out. As the compost starts to work, you add organic matter to the end, and it gets longer. This way, you can keep the same pile alive. I had one compost pile that was working for two years.
  • DO NOT try and compost human waste and put it in a garden. It’s extremely toxic. No matter how good you are at it, you’re not going to compost 100% of the organic matter. Also, wait until the compost is cool, (dead) before you incorporate it into your soil.



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