Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Composting: Citrus and Citrus Peels

This past Saturday, I spent 7 hours standing at a table on a garden tour, talking about composting. Yes, it's a glamorous life I lead; don't be jealous.

Given that we are now at the tail end of citrus season, the question I heard again and again throughout the day was, "Can you put citrus and peels in the compost pile?" Most frequently, it wasn't posed as a question, but rather as a statement in the negative. And, oddly, I heard from any number of people that their son or daughter or husband or wife wouldn't let them put citrus in their compost pile. Not putting citrus in the compost pile must be one of the most entrenched myths about composting in the Desert Garden; everyone knows it's a bad idea.

As it turns out, all those everyones are wrong. Citrus peels, and whole citrus are a great addition to the compost pile, and they break down as readily and as thoroughly as any other ingredient (and better than some). So let's explode some myths:

Myth: Citrus peels contain a chemical that keeps them from breaking down in the compost pile, or will cause your compost pile to stop working.
Truth: Citrus peels are a great addition to the pile, break down easily and quickly, and contain no chemicals adverse to the composting process. Citrus does contain some strong compounds, but none of them prevent or harm the composting process. Here at The Ranch, I've been composting citrus peels for years and have never had a problem.
Myth: Whole citrus cannot be added to the compost pile because they won't break down.
Truth: There is a grain of truth to this one, but only a grain. Certain citrus, most notably the Sour or Seville Orange, will not break down if the peel is perfectly intact. My guess is that the oils and acids of the rind prevent the entry of composting micro-organisms. If, however, the peel has even the slightest cut or scrape, or opening, the fruit will compost quickly and completely. When adding whole citrus to your compost pile, simply take a half a second and make certain the rind is cut. Or, just take a jab at them with your spading fork whenever you turn the pile; it's good practice for hand/eye coordination.

Myth: Citrus will make your compost acidic, and that's a bad thing.
Truth: To the contrary, it's a good thing. Our soils here in the Desert Garden are highly alkaline, so slightly acidic compost will be beneficial. While our native and adapted desert plants do fine in our naturally alkaline soils, the vegetables and flowers that we grow in compost-amended soils prefer a soil pH of around 7 to slightly below, so if our compost ends up acidic, so much the better.

Myth: OK, fine, some citrus is acceptable, but you have to be sure not to add too much.
Truth: You can't add too much citrus to your compost pile, but you can add too much in proportion to other ingredients. But that's true of anything. I did have one woman tell me that she filled her compost bin to the top with citrus and citrus peels and it didn't make compost. When I asked what else was in the bin, she said, "Nothing, just the citrus." And therein lay the problem. Citrus is considered a "green" or nitrogen-bearing material. The basic recipe for compost has four necessary ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, water, and air. Absent any of the four, the process won't work. A bin full of nothing but citrus won't produce compost any better than a bin full of nothing but grass or lettuce leaves; that it's citrus is irrelevant. So go ahead and add as much citrus as you want, but be certain to add an equal amount of carbon-bearing material at the same time.
Myth: My husband, wife, son, or daughter won't let me put citrus in my compost pile.
Truth: In every life there comes a moment when we are called to stand strong in defense of truth, integrity, values, and honesty, no matter who may be challenging our principles or tempting us to infidelity. This is not that moment. But just for practice tell 'em to buzz off and get their own darn pile.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips, I am glad to hear it, as I have composted my excess oranges extensively this year.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Tyler. I'm up early to get my kitchen compost into the pile before I go to work - it got ahead of me. In the Great Northwet we always used citrus peels on our acid loving plants like the azalea and the rhodies. I was amazed to read in your column today (I actually hadn't heard/been told) about not putting citrus on your compost pile. Amazed because I knew about the akaline quality of most desert soils. So I have been, including some dried up whole lemons. Worked fine.


Anonymous said...

Just a thought.... while compost is great, how about harvesting the fruit while it is still good and taking it to the food bank? I'm picking my 800 or so grapefruit tomorrow and heading to St. MAry's food bank.

Love the blog....
Monica Stern

Tyler Storey said...

Monica makes an excellent point, and one that I should have included in the original post: if you have edible citrus in excess of what you can eat or give to friends and neighbors, the best thing to do is to donate it to a local food bank. They will welcome your generosity.

Lazy Gardens said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.