A Starter’s Guide to Composting

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A Starter’s Guide to Composting
A Starter’s Guide to Composting

A Starter’s Guide to Composting

A Starter’s Guide to CompostingA Starter’s Guide to Composting

Do-it-yourself project – Making compost

Why compost?

Maintaining an organic compost pile provides heaps of benefits that range from ecological to economical. As a natural fertilizer, it is a free alternative to pricey fertilizers and plant food. Cities are growing more reluctant to pick up yard waste, making the compost pile the best use of grass clippings and leaves. With minimal time, you can help decrease waste going to landfills, fertilize your garden, and eliminate smelly trash cans waiting for garbage day.

Setting up your own compost pile can be as easy or involved as you like. Depending on your level of commitment, rich, dark humus can take as little as a week or as much as a year. If you’re an avid gardener, you’ll want to employ all of the following tips to get your compost as quickly as possible. Should you be more interested in a useful manner of waste disposal, just keep a few basic suggestions in mind and let nature do the work. While suitable for growing chickpeas, this hummus should not be spread on pita bread.

Logistical details and statistical specs

The bigger the pile, the more heat it will retain and the faster it will decompose. A temperature between 104F and 131F is ideal. The pile is operating at top efficiency in this range and should not be disturbed. You can feel the heat with your hand or measure it with a compost thermometer. If you are composting with an exposed bin, it should be no smaller than 3-feet by 3-feet, but commercial compost bins are insulated and can be smaller. To make it really easy, get a compost tumbler so turning your mixture isn’t such a chore.

Making compost consists of a simple ratio of two components. Shoot for one part nitrogen-rich, mostly green ingredients found mainly in your kitchen. These include all your vegetable scraps as well as coffee grounds, grass clippings, and egg shells. The bulk of the mix, about 25 parts, should be carbon-rich, fibrous, brown stuff like dried leaves, straw, and wood chips.

When adding materials, your main concern should be to avoid clumping the same things together. Spread thin layers of green between larger layers of brown and watch it compress over time. If the compost is too compact or not warm in the center, give it a thorough tossing while adding a little water. It should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. A rotten-egg stench will tell you if it is too wet.

In or out?

As you’ll see, most things are pretty acceptable, but some are quite unexpected.

Toss it in

Leaves: Chop them up or mow them for quicker results. Leave out poison ivy and poison oak, black walnut, and eucalyptus.

    • Pine Needles: Chop these up too.
    • Grass Clippings: Be sure to mix these with browns to prevent an awful stench.
    • Kitchen Scraps: Crush your egg shells, coffee grounds and filters are great.
    • Wood Ashes: Leave out coal and charcoal ashes, too much sulfur and iron.
    • Garden Refuse: Anything but what’s mentioned above. Be cautious with some weeds, which may require an internal temperature of 150F completely kill.
    • Spoiled Hay or Straw: These provide lots of nitrogen and allow air to circulate.
    • Manure: Anything from a vegetarian animal.

Didn’t Expect These: Shred your newspaper and cardboard, wash the salt off your seaweed, dryer lint, hair, it’s all good.

Leave it out

    • Dog and cat feces: Too many dangerous pathogens.
    • Meat, grease, oil: Attracts animals.
    • Lime: Can kill the microbes that are doing the work.

Start Composting

Sometimes learning how to be more green can be overwhelming, especially when trying to figure out how to construct your own compost pile.  So here’s a simple starter’s guide to composting.

Many garden experts will say your basic choice of compost is if you want a traditional compost pile or if you will be making compost using worms.  While worm composts are relatively simple to maintain, they do add the extra cost and patience of making sure your little workers (the red wrigglers you need for the pile) are happy, healthy, and safely contained in a metal tub, wooden box, or plastic bin.  This article will go through how to set up a more traditional compost pile, worms.

To start your efforts in living off the grid, decide where you will be putting your compost pile on your property.  Good options are somewhere sheltered and relatively cool.  Some suggestions are near a garage or under a few trees.  These locations will protect your pile from winds and too much rain.  Make sure you choose someplace where you have enough room for your pile.  Typically compost piles are around 3 foot wide by 3 foot deep.  Along with choosing a space, you will want to decide what kind of containment you want to use.

Most gardeners opt to create a fence around their pile that is made of 4 basic wooden posts in the corners and wrapped with chicken wire that is stapled to the posts.  This creates a barrier that both keeps unwanted critters out of your compost pile and keeps the materials in the pile compressed.  You don’t need (or really want) a lid, as you will want to rotate the pile contents from the outside in every week or so.  This helps air to circulate through the pile and helps the contents decompose more evenly.

After these few basic steps are done, it is time to build up your compost pile with the correct materials.  Every compost pile is comprised of three basic elements:  greens, browns, and moisture.  Greens are such things as vegetable scraps, fruit cores and peels, grass clippings, and other non-greasy kitchen scraps.  Do not put animal waste in your compost pile!  It does not break down and will emit a pungent odor from your pile.  Browns are such things as shredded cardboard, shredded newsprint, and other non-chemically treated paper, twigs, dried leaves, and straw.   Moisture can either be water you add to the pile or rainwater if it is that time of year.  Make sure you keep the pile moist, but not sopping wet.  Too much water will make your pile slimy and smelly.

After some time, patience, and a little hard work, your pile will produce a dark, nutrient-rich compost that you can harvest.  You can use this as fertilizer for any vegetable or herb garden you have.  It also can be used on potted plants as a top layer over potting soil.  If you are planting new trees or bushes in your yard, you can use this basic compost as a bottom layer in the hole you will dig before placing your new landscaping choices.  It will add extra nutrients directly near the roots of your new tree or bush and improve its chances of quick rooting and proper growth.

Home Composting it’s So Simple

 Composting

Home CompostingSomewhere, thousands and thousands of years ago, some hairy and slouched cave dwellers who groveled in the dirt with sticks and who managed to grow some food may have discovered that seeds grew better near the place where they piled the apparently useless refuse from their cave. Most of this “waste” material was organic matter.

I doubt very much that at the moment of discovery they had either the wisdom or the inclination to shout “Eureka!” But they must have passed the word along, because the idea of putting human, animal, vegetable, and mineral wastes on or into the soil, to make it better, spread to all corners of the world.

In the beginning, there was manure. Humanity has known for a long time that animal excrement is valuable stuff when it comes to growing vegetables and has apparently always made efforts to save it. But shortly after early humans became friendly enough with animals to be able to persuade a few of them to live at home with them in a more or less peaceful relationship, they must have realized that there was never quite enough manure to go around. So they began to devise ways of stretching it and started to think about ways to make “synthetic manure.” They didn’t know what they were doing, really. They probably just took a look at what was going on and then began trying things. Composting had begun long before our ancestors discovered it.

Decomposition is at least as old as the soil. The earth itself, as the poet Walt Whitman suggests, is something of a compost pile. “It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.” Long before there were people around to observe it, composting was going on in every forest, every meadow, every swamp, and bog, and prairie, and steppe in the world. As Richard Langer says, “Composting is a natural process that began with the first plants on earth and has been going on ever since.”

“Primitive” Composting

Ancient people were the true discoverers of organic gardening – in spite of whatever valid claims people like Sir Albert Howard or Rudolf Steiner or J. I. Rodale may have to the modern title. Whoever they were, they were artists, not scientists. Only by trial and error were they able to learn what worked when it came to making synthetic manure. They didn’t have anyone to guide them or to give them good advice because there was nobody around who knew very much. Things like psychrophilic bacteria and the relationship between carbon and nitrogen in the process of decomposition were the furthest things from their minds – and at least thirty centuries away in terms of time.

All they saw, maybe, was the forest floor where leaves fell, turned dark, and gradually disappeared to be transformed into the dark, fertile soil gardeners were someday to call “humus.” They must have realized that in time many things rot whether we try to do anything about it or not. Leave everything to Mother Nature, and eventually, the conditions that encourage decay will establish themselves. We can be thankful that this is something that has been going on since shortly after the beginning of time.

“Modern” Composting

Allowing nature to take its course, however, may take more time than we have. The modern practice of composting is little more than speeding up and intensifying natural processes. That’s all it is. When you come right down it, finished compost is no more than “treated” or “predigested” (rotted) organic matter, which usually has undergone a natural healing process and which is very valuable stuff to incorporate into your garden’s soil.

For too long there has been an air of cultish mysticism surrounding the art of composting. This is the kind of nonsense so many people find objectionable in a lot of composting literature. It is easy to get confused by gardening magazines and gardening books that describe the “science” of composting in such narrowly defined terms that you get the distinct impression that there is one, and only one, a method for making hummus.

Don’t misunderstand

There have been all kinds of extremely valuable scientific research done on composting, and much of the information gathered can be very helpful to the home composter as well as to the municipality that is doing or considering composting on a large scale. I suggest that you try to learn as much about the highly technical aspects of the subject as you can. But I caution that an overly scientific approach to composting may take all the fun out of it.

The word compost comes from two Latin roots, com meaning “together” and post, meaning “to bring.” To make edible “fruit compost” (or “fruit compote”), for example, is to bring together several different kinds of fruit, mix them with sugar and other ingredients in a jar or crock, and let it sit to ferment for several days. It really doesn’t matter how long it sits or precisely how much you add of what. In fact, you might eat some of the mixtures, and when the container gets low, replenish it with other fixings as they become available. The final concoction is almost always a delicious one, though rarely, if ever, the same as the last. There are really as many recipes for making fruit compote as there are fruit compote makers – probably more. You’ll find the same is true with composting.

As you get into composting, try not to get bogged down with complicated recipes and formulas. A few simple guidelines can help you eliminate some of the traditionally unpleasant aspects of composting. There are few hard-and-fast rules governing the making of good compost that must be followed to the letter.

If you are a beginner, start thinking in simple terms about composters. Later, you may want to develop more complicated and sophisticated techniques. Apply what scientific knowledge you have. If you find a particular section of the book too technical, skip it. You can always return to it at a later point.


Be creative. Select what you can from the information offered here and go on to establish your own composting style. When your neighbors tell you that you are doing it “all wrong,” tell them that both of you are right. As you learn more and more about composting and begin to understand the rotting process a little better, you may grow to appreciate the recycling activity that takes place in nature day in and day out. You may also find, as others have, that you want to synchronize yourself with it.

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