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how to make and use compost, with lee reich

Lee Reich at his New Paltz "farmden" with his scytheHOW CAN EVERY LAST SCRAP of goodness we’re all gathering during garden cleanup be put to optimal use? I asked expert Lee Reich, who practices no-till vegetable gardening, to share strategic soil-improving, weed-thwarting, and future harvest-enhancing steps you can take now, as you put the garden to bed. Learn to compost smarter, and prep your soil easily without tilling.

That’s Lee with his trusty scythe, above, which doesn’t figure into composting, but into how he cuts his meadow-like fields. Impressive, and mesmerizing! I’ve included a couple of his great how-to videos on composting and no-till soil preparation, along with links to the audio of our entire conversation.

I was especially excited to visit Lee Reich’s New Paltz, New York, “farmden”–that’s half garden, half farm–since it’s fruit harvest time. Lee is a longtime friend and author of many exceptional garden books, including “Grow Fruit Naturally” and “Weedless Gardening,” and “The Pruning Book,” among others.

Read the show notes from our discussion on the October 21, 2013 edition of my public-radio show below.

no-till gardens, making compost, and more, with lee reich

You’ve heard me talk about Lee before as the “unusual fruit guy,” and indeed we taste-tested paw paws and American persimmons and kiwis and more the other day. (Remember my story with Lee about growing those?)

But what really caught my attention the other day: seeing “Lee the soil guy” in action—how he composts, and how he preps his vegetable garden in fall for spring planting.

“Taking care of the soil is not rocket science,” Lee says (despite having an advanced degree in soil science). “Make sure the drainage is good, and beyond that it’s just a question of getting plenty or organic matter into the soil. Do those two things, and you’re 90 percent there.”

lee’s no-till, weed-less growing

LEE’S TACTICS for growing vegetables: a weed-less (emphasis on the less, meaning fewer but of course not no weeds). He hasn’t turned one vegetable garden in 15 years since he created it; his other growing area hasn’t been turned in 30. Both deliver bountiful harvests, despite the fact that his beds are very intensively planted.

All he does each year: Minimizes soil disturbance by not tilling or pulling things too roughly (which would bring weed seeds to the surface or allow others to sow in), and adds an inch of compost as a topdressing. That’s right: Don’t dig your compost deep into the soil, Lee says. An inch spread right on the surface of a tidied-up bed mediates the compaction caused by pounding of rain; insulates the roots of the plants you grow in it, and since most feeder roots are in the upper reaches, it supplies what plants need.

“The vegetables don’t need any other fertilizer,” he says.

So how does he clean up the beds without disturbing the soil? Lee doesn’t yank things madly (the way I do, I confess!), making gaping holes. Instead he strategically uses his Japanese weeding knife, or hori-hori, to encircle and sever the roots of each pepper or tomato or whatever, right around the main stem, then carefully lifts it out. Lee’s recent video on soil prep and topdressing with compost (up above, at the start of this section) explains it all.

Plus: Lee’s and my longtime friend Joe Lamp’l of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS has a whole section on no-till vegetable gardening, for additional reference.

can-do composting, lee’s way

EVEN AFTER 40 YEARS of composting, “I find the whole process so fascinating,” says Lee. “I never cease to be amazed by it.”

His key tools for success: A compost thermometer–about 18 inches long—to test the internal temperature of each heap. Lee’s compost gets to 140-160ish degrees F, though it doesn’t have to get that warm to decompose, he says.  But
the thermometer helps Lee know if he’s got a good balance of ingredients—both “green” or Nitrogen-rich, and “brown,” or Carbon-rich. If it’s right, and if there is some moisture and air, the pile heats up.

Lee’s other key tool for the composting: a bin. Lee’s 15 identical bins are homemade from notched, 4-foot lengths of “manufactured wood,” stacked log-cabin-style gradually, a tier at a time, as he adds material. He keeps piling stuff up in each bin to a height of about 5 feet, filling again a few times as the material settles.  He moistens any dry ingredients slightly as needed when adding them. Lee used rot-resistant real lumber to build bins for many years, but lately had turned to the more long-lasting recycled decking “lumber.”

He covers each bin with EPDM fabric, which is typically used for rubber roofing and available at building supply stores. “A very useful material around the farm or garden,” says Lee, “to keep things covered.”

Many expert sources say never to add diseased or insect-laden materials to the heap. Lee’s approach:

“I contend that if you look closely enough at anything, you’re going to find some ‘bad guy’ on it,” he says.  “So my thing:  I put everything into the compost.” Any and all organic material derived from a plant—“organic” meaning living or formerly living with an eye to adding both high-C high-N materials.  He does turn each bin periodically, and again: His piles heat up to a temperature range helps kill off pathogens or pests.

It all goes like he demonstrates in his video called “You Won’t Believe What I Compost” that I embedded up above (and you won’t–and I didn’t!).

more how-to’s with lee reich

get the podcast version of future shows

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

how to win 2 books by lee reich

Grow Fruit Naturally by Lee ReichI’VE BOUGHT TWO extra copies of “Grow Fruit Naturally” and “Weedless Gardening” by Lee Reich to share with you. (NOTE: GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.)

All you have to do to enter to win one of each is answer this question, entering your reply into the comment form at the very bottom of the page:

Do you have any particular tactics for composting, and do you turn your vegetable beds to work in amendments or not?

Lee Reich's "Weedless Gardening" bookMe: I compost in a very long, large open pile called a “windrow,” rather than a bin, and it’s definitely not cooking along very “hot.” It gets turned once a year. I grow vegetables in raised beds, to which I add at least an inch of compost as a topdressing each year.

Feeling shy, or have nothing to share? Just say “count me in” and I will include your entry–again, put it in the box-like form at the bottom of the page! Good luck to all. I chose two winners at random after entries closed at midnight Sunday, October 27, 2013.

(Disclosure: All Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission that I use to buy books for future giveaways.)

  1. Anne says:

    I have just purchased a home built in the 30’s and the garden (and trees) have not been taken care of. I want to begin my compost bin but have zillions of acorns. I don’t want a zillion oak trees and of course the acorns are in with the leaf piles. Do I go ahead and start my compost bin with those acorns or send it to the dump and start fresh?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anne. I have a lot, too! Typically I screen the finished compost to get out twigs, acorns, small stones and such — anything that hasn’t, or can’t turn to humus. I often rake or pick out the acorns that are easy to get at, and toss them around for small mammals and so on to eat, but even if you compost them they won’t break down as quickly as leaves and such, so you can screen them out afterward.

  2. Joel says:

    I compost everything I can get my hands on. I steal the leaf bags my neighbors put out and shred them up with my mower. I have the lawn service that sucks up my neighbors’ leaves dump several yards of shredded leaves in my driveway and I move it to several piles from there. Most of my kitchen scraps go into my 3 worm composting bins in the garage. I have a couple of windrows of shredded leaves and yard waste, a couple of bins made out of pallets, a plastic tumbler, and some coiled fencing that I fill up. I top dress my beds with a generous layer in the fall, and spread some on my lawn if there’s any left over. All this is on a quarter acre of suburbia. My neighbors think I’m nuts, I’m sure.
    FWIW, according to soil scientist Elaine Ingham, it’s possible to get your compost TOO hot and kill off the “good guys”. Also, in order to keep these aerobic bacteria going strong, you shouldn’t make the pile too deep, and it should be turned regularly.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Joel, and my neighbors look at me funny, too. :) And I agree: too hot is no good. Lee always reminds me about the thermometer and how critical a tool it is.

        1. margaret says:

          Heating happens because of fuel (raw materials, especially “green” ones loaded with Nitrogen), air (from turning), and moisture. If the pile exhausts any of those, it cools. Turning and adding more raw material can heat it up (unless you add so much it overwhelms the pile). Moisture in small amounts can help it cook faster, too. If you really coaked it it would cool down — but you’d really ruin the heap into a sodden mess. What’s wrong?

  3. Frances McCauley says:

    I never seem to get my compost heap high enough……..but it seems to make pretty good stuff anyhow… albeit a bit slower i guess. Thanks for your emails. I always look forward to them. F.McC.

  4. Jean says:

    I just started a bin in an old children’s play pen. I’m hoping it works till we can build a bin. I’m adding my spent flowers, grass cuttings and house compost matter. I’m New to all this.
    I’m also trying to emphasis to my husband not to rotor till his garden plot. He is old school from the hills of Montana and his dad used a tiller every season. This was our first year of gardening and we had weeds, weeds, weeds. We gave up.

  5. Ann says:

    This is so great! I love composting. I loved that he threw is old clothes on top. What a great idea. I’m racing against time to clean up my beds. We had a hard frost last night here in Michigan so a little behind.

  6. sylvia warner says:

    I heard someone lately on the radio say that everyone he knows starts the summer turning the compost weekly. That lasts for one month. I seem to not have time (or memory) to turn it more than once a summer!

  7. D. D. says:

    Back to my “compost” and garden after 2 years…life happens. I missed it: it missed me. I will be making some changes since rescuing skim coat of an old, uncovered compost pile that was full of tree roots. This year no soil turned and a whisper of rescued compost applied. A new beginning.

  8. kathny says:

    I have two Earth Machine Composters that I have been using for my small garden. Now that one bin is completely filled, I’m working on the second one. I have both turned my garden and left it alone throughout the past few years, depending on how busy I am in the spring, I didn’t turn it this year and found a lot less weeds, but my garden yield was also smaller, so I don’t know if there was a correlation or if other factors were in play, but count me in!

  9. Christine Thomson says:

    I would love a copy of the Weedless Garden book. I pull weed from my shade garden and my denny garden. I had an extraordinary weed surplus this spring/summer due to several more inches of rain than usual in Raleigh, NC.
    By the way, please write another book soon. I enjoyed your last book of essays.

  10. Karin Peterson says:

    For years I kept 2 open compost bins going,,, one still accepting vegetable matter and the other finished from the year before and used for its black gold. Now I must use a commercial plastic compost barrel with lower access door for finished “gold”. I stir the barrel’s contents now & then and make sure it stays moist while “cooking”. Some times it gives off a stinky sour smell. How can I keep that from happening?

  11. Joetta says:

    I guess we can all compost … if we all have access to horse manure. Which I don’t, so the ‘ratio’ that everyone talks about is hard to attain. Still, I do my best, just takes longer. :-)

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t use any manures, since it’s hard to get any from an organic farm here (they save it for their own fields, understandably) and I don’t want tainted stuff. But I do manage to compost slowly, not “hot,” and gets loads of finished material eventually.

  12. Patty Birch says:

    I have only one nice compost bin that my husband built for me, around 4′ cubed. I love it, but would love to have more bins so that I could leave one to finish off, while adding fresh scraps to the new pile. I have been making it work by pulling out some of the finished compost and keeping some of the fresh material to the side.
    Sometimes I mix to add air. Sometimes I water. But I agree, compost happens, just do it, it will still decompose even if you do not have time to baby it

  13. Donna says:

    I’ve been composting for over 40 years and I’ve never turned a pile, too much work. I screen my compost to get out the bigger stuff and throw that in the next pile. I have three bins so I always have one that’s ready and two others that are working. I get more compost then I know what to do with. I am careful not to throw in any seed heads or weeds that spread from plant parts.

  14. donna gagne says:

    Please count me in. I love to save my scraps from inside & when I clean out my garden
    that goes in as well. About the only thing I don’t put in there is aggressive weeds that
    I’m afraid I will be replanting through out the garden. I have a number of books on gardening
    and it seems they all have their own ideas about how to do things so I pick out what I
    think will work best for me and try that. I like some of the things that you showed us in
    your video, especially about clothes, I never would have thought about that. Thanks for
    all your information. You can see by your pile what ever you do works. Looks beautiful.
    Thank you, Donna

  15. Dee says:

    When I have leafy small branches to dispose of I hold the top of the branch in one hand and strip the leaves off with the other. Then I cut the branch into small pieces and in it goes into one of my compost bins or tumblers.

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