Does The World Need 318 Pages on Compost?


CompletecompostMy approach to compost:

1.  Chop the stuff up as best you can.

2.  Put it in a pile.

3.  Wait.

So when The Complete Compost Gardening Guide arrived from Storey last week, I wondered:  Is composting really this difficult?  Do we actually need 318 pages–printed, by the way, on glossy, probably-not-recycled paper–to tell us how to compost?

I’m not so sure.  If you are a complete novice, and you’re going to jump right in and plant a very large, ambitious garden, you probably need to school up on compost quick. This book will tell you everything you will ever want to know, but it might overwhelm you, too.  We are talking about rotting muck, after all.

The book, written by garden writers Barbara Pleasant and Deborah Martin  (no blog, exactly, although there is a blog-ish update page here) covers the basics: the benefits of compost, how to build a bin, what goes in a pile, worm composting, compost tea, cover crops, soil biology, etc.

There’s not much new here, and it seems like the authors, realizing that, came up with new names for familiar techniques. Sheet composting (already re-branded as Lasagna Gardening ten years ago) becomes "Comforter Compost"; worm composting is called "Catch-and-Release Vermicompost", and a hot compost pile is called a Hospital Heap.  There are lots of other names:  Pits-of-Plenty, Composter’s Conduit, Cathole Compost, Honey Hole (no jokes, please),  Pampered Pit (OK, now you’ve got me doing it), and so on.  There are chapters on tools–it even covers buckets–and on plants that grow especially well in compost (tomatoes, beans, etc), but those chapters feel like filler.  It’s not enough information to make this a comprehensive guide to gardening, but more than a book on compost really needs.

As a person who felt perfectly justified in giving the world 223 pages on earthworms, I feel a little funny  suggesting that this hefty compost guide is overkill.  It’s reasonably priced at $19.95 and it really and truly will be the only book on compost you’ll ever need.  But I could do without the gimmicky names, and if some of those extraneous chapters had been tossed on the compost pile, it could have been whittled down to an even more reasonable $14.95 for a smaller, less overwhelming treatise on what has always been, for me, the most simple, rewarding, and interesting part of the garden.


  1. This book is getting the twofer treatment here at the Rant because I gave my review copy to composting guru Ed Bruske for his review, which is coming soon. He’s currently creating a program of Master Composter training for DC, with the help of Cornell, he tells me.

  2. Does it address climactic differences? I’ve noticed that where I live now (Wisconsin), all I really need to do is pile things up and wait. Maybe it goes faster if I do a few other things. Not so in New Mexico, where things mummified beautifully, resulting in squash that could have lasted about as long as King Tut. A realization of different microbial/climatic differences would be a nice twist.

  3. That’s a lot of words written, in the first of two posts, about a book that you question the need for in the first place.

    I like it!

  4. Alameda County also has a Master Composter training program. I’m guessing if there’s enough to composting to create a master class, there’s enough to fill a 300-page book.

  5. I follow your method of composting, except I don’t bother chopping anything up. I just wait longer. When it gets smelly, I throw dirt on it.

    What amateur gardener really needs to compost more carefully than that? I wish garden writers would stop telling me what to do–I had enough of that at home growing up–and start entertaining me more.

  6. I hate books like that. Someone needs to write a book on how easy composting is. Every time I recommend that someone start composting, they think it’s too complicated and time consuming to attempt. No one believes me that all you have to do is throw everything except meat, fat and bones in your composter and let it “simmer”.

  7. I’m a hot compost flunkie. I pile it up and eventually it rots. Nothing fancy. No rats. It’s not fast. There are weed seeds (the year of the pumpkin seeds was crazy). But it works. I’d rather have more entertainment too.

  8. Hopefully the authors did not recommend brewing compost tea with extra aeration and molasses. Linda Chalker-Scott has ranted against this misguided effort to culture unnaturally high levels of bacteria from your compost on her website . It’s been widely touted as a foliar spray to reduce pathogens, but no university or scientific studies have verified its efficacy for disease control. It is not registered as a pesticide and cannot legally be recommended or applied as one. Aerated compost tea creates a culture of compost microbes –you don’t know what microbes are in your compost and by providing this enriched environment, you could be growing E. coli or other pathogens. Stick with the extract and the “normal” levels of microbes.

    I covered both composting and mulching in one chapter in my book (“Sustainable Gardening for Florida”) and described low, medium, and high-maintenance composting. I also dealt with composting where there is no significant freezing and with our wet and dry seasons. Ginny

  9. Interesting points, Amy, and I totally agree that experienced composters who have hit their composting rhythm don’t need this or any other book. But what about all these new people who are told that there is only one way to compost, which is borrowed from commercial teks that have nothing to do with what really happens in peoples’ back yards? Maybe they need clear, simple methods with catchy names to get them to trust the process and bring composting into the garden, where it belongs.

  10. I had a similar question at Borders while looking for a book by Rick Darke. They had one tiny field guide by him but they had 15 titles about how to grow marijuana; one fifth their entire shelf space. Is it really so hard?
    So much of gardening is common sense and what is missing is the culture transmission from generation to generation or over the fence from gardener to gardener.

  11. It’s true that successful gardeners who are satisfied with their composting process and progress will want to look elsewhere for reading material. (Perhaps a book on marijuana culture or earthworms?) But I very often encounter people who are intimidated about compost or who feel like they’ve failed at making compost, and many others who tell me they know they “should” compost but haven’t the slightest idea how to get started. Our book is about making compost accessible for those people and for spreading the word that there are as many different ways to make compost as there are ways to garden–and all of them are worthy efforts.

  12. I have to admit that I’m a little puzzled by the attitude in this discussion (and many other discussions that come up here at Garden Rant) that less information is somehow better. I can see making an argument that you want information to be accessible, well organized, and understandable. You don’t want to pick up a text book when you’re actually looking for a guide. But if all you want is a quick hit on a topic, there’s always the Internet. Of course, a certain amount of the information you’ll get there will be wrong, but that’s the risk you take when you go the quick route. I’m kind of glad to find that somebody is still publishing more comprehensive books. I’d like more, please.

  13. I just spoke at the opening session of a three session “Master Composter” program in Syracuse offered by our county’s resource recovery agency (

    Despite my decades in the gardening education business, it’s always humbling (and/or scary) to re-discover how unaware many/most of our neighbors are about the natural world.

    So, I would tend to error on the side of too much information – if there is such a thing?

    By the way, when beginning the original Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Composter program here in Syracuse in about 1990, I stole almost all of our instructional material from Seattle Tilth (!

    The program included the distribution of 100 compost bins for something like $12.00 each in return for purchasers promising to share their composting experiences with their friends, families, neighbors, etc.

    We also did train-the-trainer classes for garden center staff in support of the message we were delivering. And, we met with elected officials to reassure them that backyard composting wasn’t going to result in their communities being overrun with rats and other vermin.

  14. Claire Splan, don’t blame Amy. I am definitely the anti-intellectual, Khmer-Rougish member of the group. Not because I don’t like information–my God, I do. I’ve spent the last 15 years reading gardening books when I should have been reading Don DeLillo and Philip Roth.

    But I worry a lot about why none of my neighbors garden–why none of them understand what an easy and joyful activity it is. Part of the problem is, as Valerie said, that there is no generational transfer here–most of us had non-gardening parents. And part of the problem is that a lot of garden writers won’t admit that gardening is a principle-rather than rule-based activity.

  15. Hey, Darwin wrote at more length than that about earthworms. I don’t recall your having somebody play the oboe at them, either. (Or was that a bassoon?)

    What I like about composting is that it works even when you do it wrong. I’m a complete half-assed slob about it and the worst that has ever happened was the year we had about a dozen fat flies a day roosting on the garage door, and a pair of black phoebes took that as an invitation to raise a brood in the yard. They’d scare the flies off the door and pluck them out of the air with an audible snap. Great fun.

  16. I was given this book as a gift from a friend as I was wanting to start my own composter. I did skip a lot of pages but it was interesting and helpful to read.

  17. I suppose it’s overkill to someone not heavily into composting. Personally, I can’t get enough on the subject so I’m thrilled with the book. I enjoy composting as much as planting and tending flowers so it’s like a hobby for me and I know I’m not alone. I wouldn’t read a 316 pages on golf or fishing. It doesn’t mean someone else won’t enjoy it.

Comments are closed.