Composting is a natural process in which decomposed organic materials are recycled into rich soil material known as compost. All living things decompose and the term composting usually refers to backyard composting, which is the accelerated version of the same natural process. By composting the organic waste, we can return the nutrients of life back into the soil, and the cycle of life continues. Finished compost resembles dark brown soil, and it feels crumbly and smells a lot like a forest floor.
Basics of Composting
While no one can deny the benefits of composting, building soil via composting is the perfect gardening project for a lazy person. A compost pile, unlike double-digging or weeding, takes care of itself and doesn’t take a lot of time and physical effort. If done right, composting can transform your gardening expectations.
Start with a Compost Bin
Since you’re dealing with decaying organic material, the structure doesn’t matter since you only need some container to hold all the ingredients together while the bacteria do its job and break down the organic plant matter.
Compost bins can be stationary or rotating, but in both types, the content is turned periodically to aerate the compost and bring the decaying materials together for the combination.
Stationary compost bins can be very simple, and you can make one yourself with well-ventilated cages made of wire fence sections or assembled wooden crates. The rule of thumb is that a well-designed compost bin retains the moisture and heat and gives quicker results.
Easy-to-turn compost tumblers are also effective as they can speed up the process and produce compost in weeks instead of months or years. They achieve this by heat retention and frequent oxygen infusion.
Selecting a compost bin depends on how much organic material you have available, how large the yard is and how quickly you need to use the compost.
To speed up the decomposition process when you’re using a stationary compost bin, locate the pile in a sunny spot so that it gets as much heat as possible. Decomposition will still take place if you place it in a shady spot, but it’ll be slower. You can also place the compost tumblers in sunny spots to take advantage of the heat.
Mix the Ingredients Right
Getting the ingredient mix right is important if you’re to get the perfect compost. For example, combining green and brown plant matter is the ideal recipe for a low-maintenance pile. You’ll also need some moisture so that the bacteria can keep working their magic. Kitchen waste and grass clippings make the ideal green matter, while wood chips, dry leaves, and shredded newspapers are perfect for brown elements of the compost.
It’s preferable to skip meat, dairy, and fish for outdoor compost bins because they’ll attract mice and raccoons and other pests. However, if you don’t want to send the leftovers to a landfill, there are ways to turn these ingredients into food for your plants.
If you’ll be using a simple container for composting, the best way to start is to heap the ingredients on the ground and start with a chunky material such as woody stems and small branches. Every time you add brown material, make sure you add some green as well so that you can create air pockets and maintain a good moisture balance.
Maintain the Compost Pile
After you have mixed the ingredients, taking care of the compost pile is very simple. A little bit of care can make a significant difference. Keep adding to the pile regularly so that bacteria can consume fresh food and get enough insulation to maintain the heat in the pile.
When using a stationary bin, turn the pile using a pitchfork or aerator every few days so that all the materials are mixed well. Check the moisture level by holding a handful and feeling if there is a slight dampness. Getting the right moisture balance is important because too much can give you a slimy mess, while too little will give a slow decomposition. After a few months, the end product will be a dark, earth-like and crumbly soil.
Mistakes to Avoid
The best thing about making compost is that it is very difficult to mess it up, but there are some common mistakes that you should avoid.
Although composting is a natural process, it still needs a critical mass for the breakdown process to take place. While you don’t want to start too small, some compost bins only work well for small amounts, so it’s about choosing a bin that is fit for your compost needs.
It’s important to keep things moist because moisture is as essential to the composting process as heat, especially in dry weather. Even though there is an active process going on, the right combination of moisture and heat can really speed it up.
It is not wise to depend on just a single material for composting as a combination of different nutrients and textures by disintegrating different plant materials helps the compost develop pest resistance.
If you’re composting for the first time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. What’s essential to remember is that this is just a simple and accelerated natural process, not nuclear physics, so just dig in and try your hand at composting and you’ll soon understand what works and what doesn’t.
What to Put in a Compost Pile
Since microorganisms play the most important role in making compost, a good compost pile should include all the ingredients that will make them healthy and happy. While there are tons of different ingredients that you can put in a compost pile, these are some essentials that the compost pile needs: heat, oxygen, moisture, nitrogen, and carbon.
A compost pile doesn’t necessarily require heat as the process itself creates heat, but it needs some of it to kick-start the process. An active compost pile can continue composting even in cold weather because it supplies the heat itself, provided that it is well-insulated. However, a pile built in winter using frozen material will remain unchanged because composting bacteria require a certain temperature range so that they can start working.
Moisture isn’t the most important ingredient if you’re not trying to speed up the process, but if you want accelerated composting, providing the right amount of moisture is key. Compost piles can easily go dormant if they’re dry. The compost pile should be as damp as a squeezed sponge. Instead of spilling water into the pile, try sprinkling it to get an even distribution of moisture. Another crucial tip is to add water to the pile from time to time while you’re building it, instead of wetting the pile after you’ve completed it. You can also add leftover tea, coffee or water used for boiling pasta, potato or other vegetables.
While composting can take place even without oxygen, the process will be smellier and a lot slower. The product is also highly acidic, while aerobic composting gives a pH-neutral product. Oxygen is vital to promote aerobic microorganisms, even though there are anaerobic microorganisms as well, but more on that later. To ensure that the pile gets a constant oxygen supply, you can lay the foundation of the pile with sticks so that air enters from below. To build air pockets, you can add bulky material such as wood chips, make the compost around perforated pipes, or poke holes with a compost aerator. Another way to aerate the compost is to keep turning the pile occasionally.
All of the brown matter in the pile is actually carbon. Although there’s a lot of carbon in green ingredients as well, the brown matter such as dead leaves, pine needles, and sawdust have a higher carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.
To make sure that your compost pile remains hot, you need to add more brown matter. Brown matter in the compost is easier to find, and it’s what the microorganisms feed on. If the pile has cooled down and won’t turn hot again no matter how many times you aerate it, this is because the microorganisms have run out of brown matter. Add new material i.e. carbon and the compost pile will remain hot for weeks.
All living organisms require nitrogen as it’s a key ingredient of protein-based compounds. Green ingredients of the compost are the main suppliers of nitrogen. The green ingredients can include weed, grass clippings, green leaves, hedge trimmings, and so on. The ample supply of nitrogen allows the microorganisms to multiply rapidly. Without it, the composting will take place very slowly.
To get your composting pile to accelerate, simply add green matter to the pile that will provide nitrogen. You can also provide nitrogen in the form of manure, cottonseed meal or blood meal. However, the amount of nitrogen should not be too much as the pile will start emitting ammonia and you will definitely smell it.
Microorganisms that are commonly used for composting are of two types. Aerobes work when there is a supply of oxygen, while the anaerobes work when there is no oxygen. Both types of microbes can be added to a composting pile.
Anaerobes are integral to sealed composting systems. For example, if you fill a polythene bag with table scraps and backyard waste and place it in the sun, the anaerobes will turn it into compost. However, the result will be a foul-smelling mess that is highly acidic. However, this compost is perfectly useable as well. As compared to aerobic composting, this process is not just smellier, but it’s also slower.
Aerobes, on the other hand, require atmospheric oxygen to survive, and these microbes thrive in outdoor piles. They convert the pile to compost by eating through the organic matter. These microbes give off more heat and water than anaerobic microbes.
These are all the essentials that a composting pile requires. There are some materials that you can add to the pile so that it will rapidly turn into compost and the materials that you should avoid are also mentioned below.
You can add:
- bush trimmings,
- grass clippings,
- organic manure,
- non-animal food scraps such as fruits, vegetables, bread, peelings, cereal, tea leaves, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters,
- old wine,
- dry cat or dog food,
- dust from vacuuming or sweeping,
- dryer lint,
- spices and herbs.
- shredded paper,
- cotton balls,
- toilet rolls,
- egg cartons,
- used towels,
- sheets of natural fibers such as cotton, wool, linen and silk,
- pine cones and needles,
- wood chips,
- nut shells,
- dry pasta,
- human hair,
- corn cobs,
- pits from fruits such as mangoes and peaches.
However, some of these items sometimes require more time and preparation, and you may find them virtually unchanged even after months.
- Blackberry and raspberry brambles,
- long twigs,
- big branches,
- pet droppings,
- animal products such as meat, butter, bones, milk and fish skins.
How to Use Compost
Compost is mainly used as a soil amendment where it’s mixed with the soil to improve the soil structure, buffer the pH, increase the population of microbes, and increase the organic material in the soil. Composts are also spread frequently on garden beds, and it’s often used on lawns as well as in containers. Compost can also be used as garden mulch. However, the claim that you can never use too much compost is not entirely true.
Compost can also be added to the soil in various ways, depending on the purpose. If you’re using it to improve the soil structure, the compost should be thoroughly incorporated and for that, you’ll need to dig it in.
If you already have rich and light garden soil and are making use of the compost to maintain it, you don’t have to dig up your garden. You can easily add the compost on top and worms, microbes and rain will do the rest.
Mulches are added over the soil and between the plants to reduce soil evaporation, smother weeds, or regulate the temperature of the soil. Plastic mulches are used to raise the soil temperature, but organic mulches such as that of compost are used to insulate the soil and protect it from the temperature changes that are caused during the day and night. Organic mulches also increase the amount of organic content as they decay with time and improve the soil.
Compost is an excellent lawn and garden amendment, and it’s largely because there’s no need to dig it into the soil to incorporate it. You can simply sprinkle it over the grass, and the worms and microbes will do the rest. However, it’s recommended to use a thin compost layer, quarter-of-an-inch thin to be exact. Using half-an-inch thick layer of compost can smother even three-inch high grass. It’s important to use sifted compost as lawn amendment to avoid large clumps that could hurt the grass.
Pots and Containers
While garden soil only requires 5% organic matter, the potted soil may require a higher proportion to support the plant’s health in the confined environment of a pot. Compost is capable of absorbing and retaining moisture, which is very important in pots and containers as they tend to dry out quickly. While a mixture is preferred for most plants, some plants such as tomatoes require 100% compost.
Benefits of Composting
While the benefits of composting have been discussed before, here’s a brief summary of these benefits as well as the advantage of using composting over chemical fertilizers.
Composts improve the soil structure, but they are useful for both sandy soils as well as clayey soils. In loose and sandy soils, compost can improve the water retention, while in heavy and clayey soils, the compost improves drainage.
Composts also prevent crusting in the soil surface and promote the emergence of seedlings. They resist compaction and make soil penetration easier for the plant’s roots. They are also useful in maintaining the pH in both acidic and alkaline soils. Compost also serves as a good environment for the microbes that are responsible for breaking down the soil constituents into the nutrients of the plant. It’s also useful in improving the retention of nutrients in the soil and increases their availability to the soil.
When it comes to the comparison of composts to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the compost is much more useful and environmental-friendly. It encourages healthy plants and reduces the need for fungicides and pesticides.
As compared to fertilizers, the compost reduces the environmental damage. It also reduces soil erosion and prevents runoff while subsequently processing and reducing the garbage amounts in landfills. It also reduces the greenhouse effect by reducing the production of greenhouse gases. Compost also remediates and decontaminates polluted soils as opposed to chemical fertilizers.
Types of Composting
Heap composting, also known as aerated static pile composting, can produce compost in a period of three to six months. This type of composting is relatively quick and ideal for a homogenous mixture of organic waste.
This type of composting works well for large quantity heaps of solid waste such as paper products, food scraps, and yard trimmings. The composting is usually done by local governments, farms or landscapers. This method is not suited for composting grease obtained from food processing industries and animal byproducts.
In heap or pile composting, organic waste is mixed in a large compost pile and layers of loosely piled wood chips or shredded newspaper are used to aerate the pile. This will allow the air to pass through the pile. Alternatively, the compost pile can be placed over a network of pipes that pumps air into the pile.
Tumbler composting, also known as turned windrow composting, is done for large volumes such as the ones generated by communities and collected by the local governments. The high-volume food processing businesses such as packing plants, restaurants, and cafeterias also perform tumbler composting. This yields a large amount of compost, which requires assistance in marketing and selling the end-product. Local governments can also sell the compost to residents at low or zero cost.
Tumbler composting involves the arrangement of waste in long piles, and these piles are aerated by periodically turning them manually or mechanically. The piles can be four to eight feet in height and 14 to 16 feet in width. The pile size is ideal, and it’s large enough to maintain temperatures by generating enough heat while at the same time these piles are small enough to aerate the core of piles.
Using this composting method, large volumes of diverse waste such as grease, liquids, yard trimmings, and animal byproducts such as fish or poultry waste are also composted.
Worm composting takes place in bins as red worms feed on yard trimmings, food scraps, and any other organic matter and create compost in return. The worms are able to break down the organic matter into high-quality compost called casting. Worm bins can be easily constructed but are also available for purchase. These bins are sized to match the volume of organic matter that will be turned into compost in them. One pound of worms contains approximately a thousand worms, and they can eat up to half a pound of organic material every day. Producing usable casting can take three to four months. The compost is ideally used as potting soil, while a byproduct of worm composting (worm tea) is also used as a liquid fertilizer.
Hopefully you find this helpful in getting started on your compost journey, to build yourself your own perfect little slice of homestead heaven.
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