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How to make compost

PT-Garden_Compost_07bYour soil is the most important element in your garden, but frequently the most neglected as well.  Good compost is the number one magic ingredient for healthy fertile soil.

Building a compost pile is one of the easiest garden projects to undertake.

Given time and exposure to elements, organic material will break down on its own. But you can also speed the process up dramatically. That’s where composting comes in.  The process can turn garden refuge into a super soil ingredient and plant food in as little as four weeks in ideal conditions and optimum care.

Plant material, air, water and microbes are the essential ingredients to facilitate the composting process.

The Foundation

Select the best location. The pile should be easily accessible, and, depending on your preferences, hidden from the main view of your yard/garden. Some people do not mind looking at their compost pile in their garden, but if you prefer not to see it, be sure to find a location out of sight or screen it off.

  • The reason the pile must be easily accessible is because you will be using it — a lot. You will add to, turn and remove the finished compost from the pile, and you do not want it to be a chore just getting to the pile!
  • You will also need to add water during dry spells, so locate the pile within reach of the hose.
  • Create your bin or heap on your soil and not in a cement slab or plastic.  This will allow micro-organisms, earthworms and other beneficial insects to migrate freely between the soil and the composting material and will also provide drainage.

Decide how much containment you want. The fastest compost pile to build is a simple mound — just throw everything to be composted into a heap and let it rot. Or, you can enclose the pile with rocks, boards, concrete chunks or fencing.

IF you decide to create an enclosure. There are as many different ways to build a pile foundation as there are ways to dream it up. A very basic pile is all you really need, although you can upgrade to fancier, more aesthetically-pleasing foundations if you’d like. Here’s how to build your super-basic foundation:

  • Measure out a plot at least 1m x 1m This will be big enough to accommodate a lot of organic material without creating an eyesore in your back yard.
  • Get some wooden 2x4s or similarly-sized wooden stakes (bonus points for medium branches that have more of a rustic look). Grab enough so that you can drive the 2x4s into a 1m x 1m square about every half-foot. This will take anywhere from 15 to 20 stakes.
  • You can also use chicken wire or many other methods and materials to create your bind.  Just remember air circulation is important.  Without it you may end up with a bin of wet rotting material.

PT-Garden_Compost_06PT-Garden_Compost_08

Starting the cycle

Aim for a balance of carbon (dead/brown/dry-twigs/chips) and nitrogen (green-grass clippings, leaves) material.It is usually recommended that you add 60% carbon to 40% nitrogen.  Layer your materials with a slight mist from a garden hose to dampen (do not wet or soak) each layer.

  • Breaking your raw materials by shredding, chipping or just cutting it  up into small pieces will drastically speed up the composting process.

Start layering. This part is the most fun. Every time you add to your compost pile, try to add in layers. There are three basic layers in a compost pile, and putting them down together and in the right order is important.  You can lay the material down in multiple sets of these layers:

  • Layer oneorganic materials: These include vegetable wastes, hay, sod, straw, grass clippings, leaves, untreated sawdust, chopped corncobs, corn stalks, small twigs, or garden debris. Put the bulkier items at the bottom of the pile, and lighter materials on top.
  • Layer twomanures,  and optionally organic fertilizers, and starters: This is the ignition, so to speak, that starts the composting process, and booster fuel to keep it running well. Manures will also greatly increase the nitrogen content of your compost. (Once your composting engine is running and heat is generated it is not necessary to add starters/activators)
  • Layer three — Twigs and course material to promote airflow.

That’s it for the first part.  Your composting engine has now been started.

Maintain the pile. Prevent your compost pile from drying out by spraying it with water during dry spells.   Do not over water.  A very soggy water drenched compost heap can reduce the microbes and chase away the words.  If the pile dries out completely the process will stop.

Speed up the process.

  •  To keep your compost heap running at maximum pace you will have to turn it about once a week.  This will introduce more air into the heap and release excess heat.  Optimum temperatures in your compost heap is between 43 and 55 °C .  Lower temperatures indicate that the process is running below optimum speed.  Higher temperatures can kill the microbes in the heap and drive out the worms.  At optimum temperate steam will rise out of the pile when you turn it winder and even in summer you can easily feel the heat with your hands.
  • During winter partly covering the pile with a tarp or cardboard will help keep heat in.
  • If you have the space start a new compost pile, once current pile is has reached optimum size of one to three cubic meters.

PT-Garden_Compost_02When is it ready?

The compost is ready when it has reduced in size by about half, no longer heats up and looks similar to dirt. It will have a fresh earthy scent, too.  If may be a fair amount of uncomposted twigs left.  Sift these out and add a new pile.

What to compost

Materials Carbon or Nitrogen Details
Alfalfa meal and hay  Carbon Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Algae, seaweed and lake moss
 Nitrogen
Good source of nutrients and minerals.
Apple pomace (cider press waste)  Nitrogen If dried use as a carbon
Ashes (wood, not coal)
 Neutral
Use only wood ashes since coal ashes can be toxic to plants. Use sparingly as a pest deterant.
Banana peels Nitrogen Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Beverages, kitchen rinse water
 Neutral
Help keep the pile moist, but don’t over do it.
Buckwheat straw or hulls  Carbon Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Cardboard
 Carbon
If you have lots of this, consider recycling it. Otherwise, shred into small pieces in pile.
Clover  Nitrogen Add it for a bit of luck!
Cocoa hulls  Carbon Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Coffee grounds (and filters)
 Nitrogen
Great source of nitrogen and worms love coffee grounds! The filter will break down so add it too!
Cornstalks, corn cobs  Carbon A little tricky, so shred and/or break down and mix well into pile.
Cotton Bur  Nitrogen Great to use to jump start your pile or warm it up
Cowpeas  Nitrogen Add them if you got them!
Eelgrass  Nitrogen If dry use as a carbon
Egg shells
 Neutral
These break down slowly, so make sure to crush these before adding.
Feathers
 Nitrogen
Slow to break down, shred if possible to speed up process
Flowers  Nitrogen Green use as Nitrogen, dried use as carbon
Fruit peels (not limes)  Nitrogen Best if you cut them up to small pieces
Grape pomace (winery waste)  Carbon When dried and shredded best used as a carbon
Green Grass clippings
 Nitrogen
When green can be used as a Nitrogen
Dried Grass clippings
 Carbon
Make sure they are not too wet and mix with dry leaves for best results.
Hay
 Nitrogen
The best kind is hay that is not suitable for livestock and is starting to decay on its own. Make sure it is dry and weathered.
Hedge Clippings  Carbon Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Hops (brewery waste)  Carbon When dried and shredded best used as a carbon
Kelp (seaweed)  Carbon Good source of potassium (perfect for growing potatoes!). Use sparingly or sprinkle kelp meal in to get your pile cooking.
Leather (leather waste)
 Nitrogen
Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Leaves
  Carbon
Shredding or chopping it up will help it break down quicker
Manure from herbivores (cow, horse, pig, sheep, chicken, rabbit)
 Nitrogen
Best if known to come from a herbivore
Newspaper
 Carbon
Shredding or chopping will help it break down quicker
Nut shells  Carbon Shredding or chopping will help it break down quicker
Oak leaves
 Carbon
Shredding or chopping will help it break down quicker
Oat straw  Carbon Shredding or chopping will help it break down quicker
Sawdust and wood shavings
 Carbon
Preferably not from kiln-dried wood
Paper  Carbon Shredding will help it break down quicker
Peanut hulls  Carbon Shredding or chopping will help it break down quicker
Peat moss  Carbon Also great to add to your garden soil
Pine needles and cones
 Carbon
Shredding or chopping will help it break down quicker
Tea leaves  Carbon Best if shredded to help it break down quicker
Vegetable peels and scraps  Nitrogen Kitchen scraps are a great source of nitrogen
Vetch  Carbon From the pea family, yup add it too
Weeds
 Carbon
Don’t add if your concerned about spreading the seeds
Wheat straw  Carbon Best if shredded to help it break down quicker

 

Things you should NOT compost!

Materials
Carbon or Nitrogen
Details
Ashes (coal or charcoal)
n/a
May contain materials that are toxic to plants.
Cat droppings/litter
n/a
These may contain disease organisms and should always be avoided for composting.
Colored paper
Dog droppings
n/a
Same as cats.
Lime
n/a
High alkaline pH can kill composting action.
Meat, fat, grease, oils, bones
n/a
Do not break down, can coat materials and “preserve” them, can attract pests.
Nonbiodegradable materials
Toxic materials  Including plants matter sprayed with pesticides

 

Things that MAY be composted, but only with caution and skill

Materials C/N Details
Bird droppings
Nitrogen
Some bird droppings may contain disease or weed seeds
Diseased Plants
Nitrogen
Make sure your pile gets to at least 60 degrees celcius for a few days to let it “therma kill” the disease
Milk, yogurt, cheese
Neutral
May attract pests, so put it in the middle to deep into the pile
Weeds with seeds
Nitrogen
Sod
Nitrogen
Like diseased plants, make sure your pile gets hot enough to make sure the grass doesn’t keep growing in your pile.

Trouble shooting.

Possible Problems Action(s) to Take
Unpleasant or off-putting odor Possible overwatering; soil too compact; too much nitrogen Add items, such as sawdust, to soak up excess moisture; “stir” the pile more; cover pile if raining; add more carbon materials
Pile not getting warm enough Pile too small; not enough moisture; insufficient air; insufficient nitrogen Add more organics to the pile to make it bigger; add more moisture while stirring; add water straight to the center of the pile by sticking in the watering hose; add in more nitrogen
Pile is too hot (temp. exceeds 150°F) Insufficient air or insufficient carbon Turn the pile more often to aerate; add more organic carbon materials such as sawdust, corn husks, or dead leaves
Pile is damp in the center only Pile is too small Add more organic materials to your pile, being sure to layer and maintain the ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio
Rodents regularly raid the pile Meat scraps Remove less viable composting materials such as meats; animal-proof the compost pile by placing grating around and tarp above
Large items take long time to decompose Smaller surface area Remove items from pile and chop up or shred to create larger surface area
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