22 Fascinating Facts About Composting You Probably Didn’t Know

Dig around for a bit on the net, or bury your head in a few gardening books, and you’ll soon start to unearth some fascinating facts about composting.

Here’s some of our favourites…

1. There’s a bird that makes compost to incubate its eggs

A Brush Turkey moves over a mound of leaves and compost material.
Brush Turkey on its compost mound. Image by Merry Jack.

Evolution can head in some weird and wonderful directions. Perhaps there are few weirder than the Australian Brush-turkey which builds a communal compost pile to incubate eggs.

The bird collects decaying material and then builds a mound. The compost heats up, allowing the bird to incubate many more eggs than it could sit on. This is not a build and leave system though – the bird checks the temperature of the compost with its beak and then adds or remove compost material to maintain an ideal incubation heat.

The piles can be up to 12.7 cubic meters and weigh nearly 7000 kilograms!

2. The President who loved composting

George Washington on his farm at Mount Vermont.

Washington is best known as a Founding Father and the President of the USA. What’s not as well known was that he had an early appreciation for the soil – abandoning the cultivation of tobacco because it ruined the fertility of the land- and was an avid composter, performing experiments to find the best way to turn dung into compost.

In his quest for fertility, Washington pursued numerous experiments and even constructed a stercorary or “dung repository” specifically designed for composting.

Washington wasn’t the only President who had an interest in fertility. Thomas Jefferson used fresh, semi-decomposed and rotted down manure to fertilise his soil, and also wrote about combining applications of manure with a crop rotation system. Meanwhile, America’s fourth president, James Maidson, stressed the importance of returning fertility to the soil, either in the form of manure or vegetable matter, equivalent to the amount that had been taken from it.

3. Composting dates back 12,000 years

Composting is nothing new – archeological evidence suggests that composting has been in progress since Neolithic times. These early farmers probably didn’t bother spreading the compost either – researchers believe they constructed the piles on the growing land and then ran their ards (light ploughs) straight through them.

4. Human remains are being composted

Your death doesn’t have to contribute towards harming the environment – in fact, one funeral company, Recompose, can turn a body into a usable compost in 30 days, and, in the process, save a metric ton of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see the results of adding all that compost to your garden 🙁

5. Explosives can be composted

TNT is an organic compound which contains, amongst other elements, nitrogen and carbon. And if you’ve read our guide to the Carbon:Nitrogen ratio, you’ll know they’re two of the essential elements needed for successful composting. The US army has combined TNT with other compostable elements to create compost, reduce harm to the environment and save millions of dollars in the process.

6. You can compost with cockroaches

An inquisitive looking cockroach.

Search for compost with cockroaches and you’ll usually get guides telling you how to keep cockroaches OUT of your compost. But cockroaches are, apparently, clean, hungry and able to produce compost without a smell. You can also buy cockroaches which can’t climb, to minimise the danger of them escaping the compost container. According to one fan:

“the compost it produces is amazingly rich and dense and full of bonuses like chicken bones, catfish skulls, crustacean shells, and whatever else of the kitchen scraps was too hard to eat.”

Read the full account on Garden rants.

7. Compost can reach 75 degrees in just a few days

HotBin compost thermometer.
This thermometer in my own HotBin compost showing just over 65 celsius.

That’s not necessarily a good thing though – heaps which are too hot can produce ash instead of soil, and can destroy beneficial bacteria. Unfortunately, there’s very little agreement on what is the ideal temperature for compost 🙁

8. You can cook in compost

All that heat means compost can – and has been – used for cooking (usually after being well wrapped in silver foil!) There’s even some high end restaurants that are experimenting with compost cooking!

Don’t take our word for it, though – Buzz Feed went ahead and did it, recording the results on the video below!

9. Hot compost can be used to grow heat loving plants in cold climates

Early 20th century greenhouse from Victorian times.
This fabulous image from a 1912 garden manual shows the success that could be enjoyed with a low tech hot bed.

There’s nothing new to this process – the ‘hot bed’ process was used by the Romans, and was popular in Victorian days.

Essentially, composting material (usually manure) is placed in a bed. As it rots, it generates heat which sustains the warmth loving vegetables. The Victorians used to carefully work more manure into the bed in order to maintain the heat.

One friend of mine built a wooden container onto the side of his house, heaped it full of manure and used the heat to grow melons outside – the results were excellent. He reports that even old manure generates enough heat to keep the melons going!

I’ve also tried this with a freshly turned compost heap, using tomato cuttings. To start with the heat generated was too much for the plants, which looked very unhappy, but as the temperature dropped back I was rewarded with lush green growth and plenty of outdoor tomatoes.

10. Compost can be used to heat greenhouses and houses

Image demonstrating the use of compost to both heat a house and produce biogas storage.

The heat compost produces can be used to heat greenhouses and polytunnels. Compost can also be used to heat houses. One method involves running hot water pipes through a compost heap with at least 8000 litres of capacity, while inventor Jean Pain invented a system which used both methane and heat to power and heat a house. The video below shows more detail on the process.

11. Compost heaps can spontaneously combust

Compost heaps can catch fire if they get too hot! Fortunately, it’s rare, and usually only happens to very large, dry compost heaps. Still, if you have a hot summer it’s definitely worth checking your compost heap, and damping it down or turning it if it’s too hot.

12. Chickens can be used to create commercial compost

A curious chicken in the compost heap.
Chickens love the bugs found in compost heaps. Image by Irene Kightly.

The amazing Vermont Composting Company uses chickens as part of its composting process. The chickens scratch and turn the compost in the search for food, adding chicken manure at the same time. It’s a cost effective process, too – the chickens find so much food in the compost, they don’t need any feeding! You can read more about the process on the Vermont Compost blog.

13. Drunk composting

One vlogger uses a combination of beer (for yeast), coke (for sugar) and ammonia for (nitrogen) to help produce finished compost in just 14 days. He calls the process “Drunk Composting.”

I’ve tried a similar process myself in my micro-composting experiment, but substituting urine for ammonia, adding sugar instead of coke and using out of date beer to provide the alcohol. Until I’ve done a comparison, though, I can’t be sure it works any better than regular composting 😉

You can see the full process in the video below…

(An unhealthy alternative might be to drink plenty of beer and a can of coke, and then pee on your compost heap!)

14. The worms in your compost heap can eliminate e-coli (and other diseases)

Tiger worms.

Composting is an amazing process that destroys pathogens in both the hot and cold parts of the composting process. Worms play their part. Not only can they eat their own body weight in a day, producing highly beneficial worm castings in the process, they can also eliminating harmful bacteria such as e-coli.

15. Cleopatra was so impressed with worms composting ability, she made them sacred

Cleopatra, from the painting Antony and Cleopatra by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Cleopatra recognised the value of worms long before modern researchers – the Egyptian Queen is reported to have made worms sacred in 50 BC because of their composting ability, and made the removal of Earthworms from Egypt a crime punishable by death.

16. One form of composting involves burying special ingredients in parts of dead animals

Biodynamic composting is a fascinating form of composting which involves putting certain plants in parts of animals. For example, yarrow is buried in a stags bladder and buried in the ground in autumn where it is left for six months, while Chamomile flowers are placed inside a cow’s intestine and buried in the soil over winter. You can read more about on Biodynamic.org.

17. Arab countries used to export fish for composting

Qatar, before striking its own black gold in the form of oil and natural gas, was poor in most resources but rich in fish. So rich that they used to export thousands of tonnes of fish for use as a fertiliser.

18. Urine is great for compost

A rustic compost toilet set in a forest.
Compost toilet. Image by Irene Kightley.

Your pee is rich in nitrogen, and composting research suggest that compost with added urine performs better than regular compost, helping prevent the accumulation of salts and balancing out the slower releasing nutrients found in compost.

19. The National Trust uses pee bales to turn urine into fertilizer

At some locations, the UK’s National Trust encourage (male!) staff to pee on straw bales (outside working hours!) instead of using toilets. The straw is later spread on fields.

20. You can compost dead turkeys

In fact, dead poultry composting has been used since 1988 when a scientist, Dr. Dennis Murphy, developed a method using straw, litter and dead birds. The technique came in handy when 20,000 Turkeys were drowned in a flood in Mississippi in 1993 – the farmer was advised that composting was the safest and easiest way to get rid of the dead birds.

21. In composting, green can be brown

Green, in composting parlance, refers to a high nitrogen material, not the colour. For example, coffee may be brown, but it is referred to as a green. See our article on the Carbon Nitrogen Ratio for more information.

22. Composting can capture carbon in the soil

Landfill.
Landfill can have a huge impact on the environment. Image via Pxhere.

High tech solutions are being developed to capture carbon and reduce the impact of human activity on the environment. But composting is a relatively low tech way of achieving the same thing according to studies such as this one on Carbon Sinking and this one on sequestering carbon. As methane emissions count for around 10% of greenhouse emissions in the US alone, simply ensuring household waste alone is composted could become a serious tool in the battle to save our planet.

Known any other fascinating facts about composting? Let us know and we’ll add it here!