Permaculture and Compost

Compost PileWe’ve been intrigued lately how the practices of sustainable, organic gardening and permaculture integrate composting into their philosophies. Your friendly Planet Natural Blogger has been known to say that organic gardening and specifically composting will save the world and both those endeavors seem to prove it. Yet, both have their differences.

We won’t go into all 12 principles of permaculture here. But consider how many of them are addressed by composting (as listed in Christopher Shein’s excellent new book The Vegetable Gardner’s Guide To Permaculture): work with nature, produce no waste, use and value resources, catch and store energy. To organic gardeners, all that come together to mean one thing: improve soil conditions without harmful chemicals.

This is the time of year we’re adding grass clippings, if we have them, to our compost piles as well as vegetable scraps from our kitchens, thinnings from our garden (if we’re not eating them), and year-round items like cardboard and newspaper. The permaculturist, in an effort to diminish waste, advocates using shredded office paper and the like as a brown (carbon-heavy) material. The organic gardening purist may not want to add newspaper because of what might be in the inks, office paper because of the bleaching agents that make it white, and carboard because of the glues used to hold its corrugated surfaces together.

Permaculturists will also add food scraps — their own and their neighbors — to the compost heap. These are very high in green (nitrogen) and if not balanced with enough brown material — dried leaves and plants, sawdust and, yes, paper — they could lead to an anerobic, putrid compost heap. Kitchen scraps have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 25:1. By comparison, grass clippings have a c-to-n ratio of 12:1.

What’s interesting here is how different philosophies — permaculture and organics — are both closely related yet can have specific differences. If you’re avoiding the production of waste as best you can (permaculture) you may not be as concerned with things like inks in newspaper that goes into your compost. If you’re an organic purist, you may not want to use any sort of paper in your compost. Permaculture experts suggest scavenging grocery store dumpsters (or making an arrangement with the store’s produce manager) for collecting expired fruits and vegetables. Organic gardeners, in an effort to keep out any pesticide or herbicide produce (or avoid having to wash everything they collect; a huge use of water) may avoid produce from grocery sources. And they wouldn’t use grass clippings from a neighbor who sprays his lawn with weed killer.

To casual observers, it might seem that sustainable gardening, organic gardening, and permaculture are one and the same. But their differences are obvious to those who pay attention and follow the practices. It’s the goals — the principles — of each that generate these differences. But their overall effect is positive. Consider the sharp contrasts each has with traditional, fertilizer-reliant, pesticide-dependent gardening and commercial farming. As all organic, sustainable gardeners and permaculture enthusiasts know, one must sometimes make compromises. Which would you make? Which would you never make?

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