Composting (cont.)

Most gardeners have long understood the value of this rich, dark, earthy material in improving the soil and creating a healthful environment for plants. Understanding how to make and use compost is in the public interest, as the problem of waste disposal climbs toward a crisis level. Landfills are brimming, and new sites are not likely to be easily found. For this reason there is an interest in conserving existing landfill space and in developing alternative methods of dealing with waste. Don't throw away materials when you can use them to improve your lawn and garden! Start composting instead.

Our hands our being forced to deal creatively with our own yard waste, as one by one, cities are refusing to haul off our leaves and grass clippings. About one third of the space in landfills is taken up with organic waste from our yards and kitchens, just the type of material that can be used in compost. With a small investment in time, you can contribute to the solution to a community problem, while at the same time enriching the soil and improving the health of the plants on your property.

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The Compost Decomposition Process

Compost is the end product of a complex feeding pattern involving hundreds of different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects. What remains after these organisms break down organic materials is the rich, earthy substance your garden will love. Composting replicates nature's natural system of breaking down materials on the forest floor. In every forest, grassland, jungle, and garden, plants die, fall to the ground, and decay. They are slowly dismantled by the small organisms living in the soil. Eventually these plant parts disappear into the brown crumbly forest floor. This humus keeps the soil light and fluffy.

Humus is our goal when we start composting. By providing the right environment for the organisms in the compost pile, it is possible to produce excellent compost. We usually want to organize and hasten Mother Nature's process. By knowing the optimum conditions of heat, moisture, air, and materials, we can speed up the composting process. Besides producing more good soil faster, making the compost faster creates heat which will destroy plant diseases and weed seeds in the pile.

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Compost Materials

Almost any organic material is suitable for a compost pile. The pile needs a proper ratio of carbon-rich materials, or "browns," and nitrogen-rich materials, or "greens." Among the brown materials are dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. Nitrogen materials are fresh or green, such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps.

Mixing certain types of materials or changing the proportions can make a difference in the rate of decomposition. Achieving the best mix is more an art gained through experience than an exact science. The ideal ratio approaches 25 parts browns to 1 part greens. Judge the amounts roughly equal by weight. Too much carbon will cause the pile to break down too slowly, while too much nitrogen can cause odor. The carbon provides energy for the microbes, and the nitrogen provides protein.

Leaves represent a large percentage of total yard waste. If you can grind them in a gas or electric chipper shredder or mow over them, they will reduce in size making them easier to store until you can use them in the pile, and they will decompose faster - an issue with larger leaves. They are loaded with minerals brought up from the tree roots and are a natural source of carbon. A few leaf species such as live oak, southern magnolia, and holly trees are too tough and leathery for easy composting. Avoid all parts of the black walnut tree as they contain a plant poison that survives composting. Eucalyptus leaves can be toxic to other plants. And avoid using poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac.

Pine Needles need to be chopped or shredded, as they decompose slowly. They are covered with a thick, waxy coating. In very large quantities, they can acidify your compost, which would be a good thing if you have alkaline soils.

Grass Clippings break down quickly and contain as much nitrogen as manure. Since fresh grass clippings will clump together, become anerobic, and start to smell, mix them with plenty of brown material. If you have a lot of grass clippings to compost, spread them on the driveway or other surface to bake in the sun for at least a day. Once it begins to turn pale or straw-like, it can be used without danger of souring. Avoid grass clippings that contain pesticide or herbicide residue, unless a steady rain has washed the residue from the grass blades.

Kitchen Refuse includes melon rinds, carrot peelings, tea bags, apple cores, banana peels - almost everything that cycles through your kitchen. The average household produces more than 200 pounds of kitchen waste every year. You can successfully compost all forms of kitchen waste. However, meat, meat products, dairy products, and high-fat foods like salad dressings and peanut butter, can present problems. Meat scraps and the rest will decompose eventually, but will smell bad and attract pests. Egg shells are a wonderful addition, but decompose slowly, so should be crushed. All additions to the compost pile will decompose more quickly if they are chopped up some before adding.

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Wood Ashes from a wood burning stove or fireplace can be added to the compost pile. Ashes are alkaline, so add no more than 2 gallon-sized buckets-full to a pile with 3'x3'x3' dimensions. They are especially high in potassium. Don't use coal ashes, as they usually contain large amounts of sulfur and iron that can injure your plants. Used charcoal briquettes don't decay much at all, so it's best not to use them.

Garden Refuse should make the trip to the pile. All of the spent plants, thinned seedlings, and deadheaded flowers can be included. Most weeds and weed seeds are killed when the pile reaches an internal temperature above 130 degrees, but some may survive. To avoid problems don't compost weeds with persistent root systems, and weeds that are going to seed.

Spoiled Hay or Straw makes an excellent carbon base for a compost pile, especially in a place where few leaves are available. Hay contains more nitrogen than straw. They may contain weed seeds, so the pile must have a high interior temperature. The straw's little tubes will also keep the pile breathing.

Manure is one of the finest materials you can add to any compost pile. It contains large amounts of both nitrogen and beneficial microbes. Manure for composting can come from bats, sheep, ducks, pigs, goats, cows, pigeons, and any other vegetarian animal. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid manure from carnivores, as it can contain dangerous pathogens. Most manures are considered "hot" when fresh, meaning it is so rich in nutrients that it can burn the tender roots of young plants or overheat a compost pile, killing off earthworms and friendly bacteria. If left to age a little, however, these materials are fine to use.

Manure is easier to transport and safer to use if it is rotted, aged, or composted before it's used. Layer manure with carbon-rich brown materials such as straw or leaves to keep your pile in balance.

Seaweed is an excellent source of nutrient-rich composting material. Use the hose to wash off the salt before sending it to the compost pile.

The list of organic materials which can be added to the compost pile is long. There are industrial and commercial waste products you may have access to in abundance. The following is a partial list: corncobs, cotton waste, restaurant or farmer's market scraps, grapevine waste, sawdust, greensand, hair, hoof and horn meal, hops, peanut shells, paper and cardboard, rock dust, sawdust, feathers, cottonseed meal, blood meal, bone meal, citrus wastes, coffee, alfalfa, and ground seashells.

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Making Compost

Compost can range from passive - allowing the materials to sit and rot on their own - to highly managed. Whenever you intervene in the process, you're managing the compost. How you compost is determined by your goal. If you're eager to produce as much compost as possible to use regularly in your garden, you may opt for a more hands-on method of composting. If your goal is to dispose of yard waste, a passive method is your answer.

Passive composting involves the least amount of time and energy on your part. This is done by collecting organic materials in a freestanding pile. It might take a long time (a year or two), but eventually organic materials in any type of a pile will break down into finished compost. More attractive than a big pile of materials sitting in your yard is a 3-sided enclosure made of fencing, wire, or concrete blocks, which keeps the pile neater and less unsightly. Add grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps (always cover these with 8" of other material). The pile will shrink quickly as the materials compress and decompose. Wait a year or two before checking the bottom of the bin for finished compost. When it's ready, shovel the bottom section into a wheelbarrow and add it to your garden beds. Continue to add greens and browns to have a good supply of finished compost at the ready. After the first few years, most simple piles produce a few cubic feet of finished compost yearly.

Managed composting involves active participation, ranging from turning the pile occasionally to a major commitment of time and energy. If you use all the techniques of managing the pile, you can get finished compost in 3-4 weeks. Choose the techniques that reflect how much you want to intervene in the decomposition process and that will be a function of how fast you want to produce compost.

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The speed with which you produce finished compost will be determined by how you collect materials, whether you chop them up, how you mix them together, and so on. Achieving a good balance of carbon and nitrogen is easier if you build the pile all at once. Layering is traditional, but mixing the materials works as well.

Shredded organic materials heat up rapidly, decompose quickly, and produce a uniform compost. The decomposition rate increases with the size of the composting materials. If you want the pile to decay faster, chop up large fibrous materials.

You can add new materials on an ongoing basis to an already established pile. Most single-bin gardeners build an initial pile and add more ingredients on top as they become available.

The temperature of the managed pile is important - it indicates the activity of the decomposition process. The easiest way to track the temperature inside the pile is by feeling it. If it is warm or hot, everything is fine. If it is the same temperature as the outside air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more nitrogen (green) materials such as grass clippings, kitchen waste, or manure.

Use a compost thermometer to easily see how well your compost is doing. They are inexpensive, and quite convenient to have.

If the pile becomes too dry, the decay process will slow down. Organic waste needs water to decompose. The rule of thumb is to keep the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

If you're building your pile with very wet materials, mix them with dry materials as you build. If all the material is very dry, soak it with a hose as you build. Whenever you turn the pile, check it for moisture and add water as necessary.

Too much water is just as detrimental as the lack of water. In an overly wet pile, water replaces the air, creating an anaerobic environment, slowing decomposition.

Air circulation is an important element in a compost pile. Most of the organisms that decompose organic matter are aerobic - they need air to survive. There are several ways to keep your pile breathing. Try not to use materials that are easily compacted such as ashes or sawdust, without mixing them with a coarser material first. People who build large piles often add tree branches or even ventilation tubes vertically into different parts of the pile, to be shaken occasionally, to maximize air circulation.

A more labor-intensive way to re-oxygenate the pile is to turn the pile by hand, using a large garden fork. The simplest way is to move the material from the pile and restack it alongside. A multiple-bin system makes this efficient, in that you only handle the material once. Otherwise, you can put the material back into the same pile. The object is to end up with the material that was on the outside of the original pile, resting in the middle of the restacked pile. This procedure aerates the pile and will promote uniform decomposition.

If you find white, powdery material in your developing compost, don't despair. The white, powdery material present in nearly finished compost is usually not a plant pathogen, but rather filaments produced by fungi and actinomycetes. Both of these organizms work on breaking down debris that is tough, dry and low in nitrogen during the cool, final stages of the compost process. Seeing evidence of fungi and actinomycetes indicates that the compost is not yet finished. Help speed things along by turning the pile over once a week.

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Compost Tips from Emily Compost:

Make your own compost tumbler. Buy a reasonably sized plastic garbage can. Drill drainage holes in the bottom. Toss in organics and roll around to mix the goodies. Don't forget to add some soil for microbes!

How to make excellent leaf mold: bag those fall leaves in a black bag, leave over the winter season in a sunny spot. By spring the leaves will have decomposed.

Caffeine is known to be a natural herbicide. All the tea bags and coffee grounds make wonderful compost, but don't over do it.

For fast composting, locate in full sun.

Shred as much as possible. The more surfaces exposed, the faster it will break down.

No grease or oils, please. Coffee/tea and water as well as sugar water will help to decompose.

Compost everything that's organic.

Do not compost fat, cat and dog droppings, nor dairy products.

Compost and mulch are entirely two different things. Compost is a soil amendment. Mulch is used on top to protect the plant from heat or cold depending on the time of the year.

Coffee grounds help diminish alkaline soil. Worms love to help decompose them.

Making compost is really quite easy, but having too much of a certain material or letting the compost get too wet or too dry can cause problems.

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Troubleshooting Composting Problems

Problems Possible Causes Solution
Damp and warm only in the middle of the pile. Pile could be too small, or cold weather might have slowed composting
If you are only composting in piles, make sure your pile is at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. With a bin, the pile doesn't need to be so large.
Nothing is happening.Pile doesn't seem to be heating up at all. 1. Not enough nitrogen
2. Not enough oxygen
3. Not enough moisture
4. Cold weather?
5. Compost is finished.
1. Make sure you have enough nitrogen rich sources like manure, grass clippings or food scraps.
2. Mix up the pile so it can breathe.
3. Mix up the pile and water it with the hose so that there is some moisture in the pile. A completely dry pile doesn't compost.
4. Wait for spring, cover the pile, or use a bin.
Matted leaves or grass clippings aren't decomposing. Poor aeration, or lack of moisture. Avoid thick layers of just one material. Too much of something like leaves, paper or grass clippings don't break down well. Break up the layers and mix up the pile so that there is a good mix of materials. Shred any big material that isn't breaking down well.
Stinks like rancid butter, vinegar or rotten eggs. Not enough oxygen, or the pile is too wet, or compacted.
Mix up the pile so that it gets some aeration and can breathe. Add course dry materials like straw, hay or leaves to soak up excess moisture. If smell is too bad, add dry materials on top and wait until it dries out a bit before you mix the pile.
Odor like ammonia. Not enough carbon. Add brown materials like leaves, straw, hay, shredded newspaper, etc.
Attracts rodents, flies, or other animals. Inappropriate materials (like meat, oil, bones), or the food-like material is too close to the surface of the pile. Bury kitchen scraps near the center of the pile. Don't add inappropriate materials to compost. Switch to a rodent-proof closed bin.
Attracts insects, millipedes, slugs, etc. This is normal composting, and part of the natural process. Not a problem.
Fire ant problems.
Pile could be too dry, not hot enough, or has kitchen scraps too close to the surface.
Make sure your pile has a good mix of materials to heat up, and keep it moist enough.

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