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How to Make Compost

How to Make Compost

A compost pile can yield better soil than even the best fertilizers.  It’s an easy way to improve your garden, reduce or eliminate the need for fertilizer and reduce the amount of garbage you send to the landfill.  Some composting guides give elaborate instructions for making the perfect compost, but it’s honestly not necessary.  Composting is simple, if you follow some basic instructions and let nature do her work, it just happens.  Here is a guide to two methods of compost making – a low work method that produces compost in about a year and a hands on method that can take as little as a few weeks.

Slow Compost

This is easiest and most practical method for average households.  It’s well suited for normal kitchen and yard waste that accumulates over time.  It produces a good quality compost with a very minimal amount of work.

Directions:

  • Place your container in a convenient location near your garden or your house.  I recommend putting it on soil so that worms and other helpful critters have easy access in and out of your pile.
  • Start your pile by laying a 6 layer of dried material such as twigs or straw.  This step is optional but helps improve airflow and keeps your pile smelling better.
  • Then just add your kitchen and yard scraps to the pile and let it accumulate.  Aim for a roughly equal mix of green material (kitchen scraps, garden clippings, yard clippings, coffee grinds, weeds, etc.) and brown material (hay, straw, dead leaves, dried grass, small twigs, sawdust and paper).
  • Periodically check your pile for moisture – the pile should be moist but not soggy.  If it’s dry to touch, add water.  If it’s wet or smelly, mix in some dry ingredients such as straw or dried leaves.  The pile should be about as moist as a wrung out sponge.
  • Keep building until you reach your desired size.  I recommend 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet or slightly larger.  Smaller piles struggle to maintain heat which slows the process.  Larger piles can be cumbersome and they take forever to accumulate.
  • Then just monitor the moisture content and let nature do her work.  Without any additional work you’ll have compost in about 1 year.  If however you want your compost faster, here are some optional steps you can take to speed up the process:
    • Turn your pile.  This is the most effective way to speed up compost – the more often you turn, the faster everything happens.  Shovel the materials on the outside of your pile into the middle so that fresh material is exposed.  Turn it every day for compost in a few weeks, turn once a week for compost in a couple months.
    • Chop items up before adding them to the pile – this also speeds decomposition and is particularly helpful for things like citrus rinds, egg shells and other tough items.
    • Add finished compost, manure or garden soil to your pile.  A couple cups every few week or so is fine.  It adds beneficial microorganisms and accelerates the composting process.

Additional tips

  • Material ratios: Try to balance the wet and dry ingredients in your pile.  A well balanced pile will have a roughly equal mix of green material (kitchen scraps, garden clippings, yard clippings, coffee grinds, weeds, etc.) and brown material (hay, straw, dead leaves, dried grass, small twigs, sawdust, paper).  When adding items with a high moisture content it helps to cover them with dry items such as straw, sawdust or leaves.  This will help your pile will smell better and be less prone to insect problems.
  • Items to avoid: Mother nature will eventually decompose anything but there are still some things to avoid for the health and safety of your pile:
    • Meat/fish/dairy – these items do decompose and can be added in small amounts but they smell bad and make your pile more attractive to vermin
    • Diseased plants – a hot compost pile will kill most disease but because this method is slower and cooler, it’s not worth the risk
    • Pet litter/poop – poop from meat eating animals is NOT recommended because of the risk of pathogens and disease.  Stick to herbivores such as horses, cows and poultry – their droppings are much safer and they’re full of beneficial nitrogen.
    • Anything toxic or highly chemical – do I really need to explain this one?

 

Fast Compost

As the name implies, this is a much faster method of composting and can yield compost in as little as 2-3 weeks.  The draw backs are that it’s more labor intensive and requires a large amount of compostable material right off the bat.  But if you have material and need compost fast, this is the method for you.

Ingredients:

  • Green Material: Nitrogen rich materials such as garden clippings, yard clippings, kitchen scraps (non meat/dairy), coffee grinds, weeds, etc.
  • Brown Material: Carbon rich materials such as hay, straw, dead leaves, dried grass, small twigs, sawdust, paper
  • Activator: A gallon or two of already completed compost or rotted manure (horse, cow, chicken).
  • Water
  • Compost thermometer

Directions:

  • Place your compost container somewhere near your garden so it’s easy to transport.
  • Gather at least 1 cubic yard of green and brown material in roughly equal quantities.  You want you pile to be at least 3 feet x 3 feet by 3 feet but not bigger than 4 feet x 4 feet x 4 feet.  Smaller piles don’t have enough mass to heat properly, bigger piles are possible but become really cumbersome and difficult to turn/aerate.
  • Shred all tough materials such as leaves, hay, citrus rinds, paper, etc.  The easiest way is with a chipper or shredder.  If you don’t have a shredder (I don’t either), you can also chop them by hand with pruning shears or machete.  Some things such as leaves and hay can be run over a few times with your lawn mower (don’t try this one if you have a lot of sticks or hard objects).  The finer things are shredded, the faster they’ll turn into usable compost.
  • Start mixing your ingredients together into one big pile.  Remember to work the activator (compost or manure) throughout the pile.  This extra boost of nitrogen fuels the microbes in your compost and really gets things cooking.  Spray with water every 6-12 inches.  It’s important that the pile is moist throughout, but it should not be soggy.  If you squeeze material and water comes out, it’s too wet.  Aim for the wetness of a wrung out sponge.  Keep mixing the ingredients until you reach the desired height (at least 3 feet).
  • Once your pile is complete, cover with a tarp and let it sit for a couple days.  It should heat up within 48 hours.
  • Once the temperature reaches 113-158 degrees F it’s time to start turning the pile.  Use a big shovel to scoop the materials from the outside of the pile into the center so the interior material is now exposed.  Some people use two containers – 1 empty and 1 full.  When they turn the pile they scoop the contents of the full container into the empty container making sure things get mixed up as they go.  The more often you turn your pile, the faster you’ll have finished compost.  Turn it every 1-2 days for compost in 2-3 weeks.  Turn once a week for compost in 2-3 months.  Don’t turn at all and you’ll still get compost but it will take 6-12+ months.

Troubleshooting:

  • If your pile is below 113, try turning it and add nitrogen rich ingredients such as greens, manure or compost.
  • If it’s above 160 or becomes very wet or rotten smelling, add more dry brown materials such as straw or dried leaves.
  • Periodically check to make sure your pile is moist – dry compost takes longer to rot.  If it feels dry add a bucket or so of water and stir it up a bit.

 

How do I know when my compost is finished?

You’ll know your compost is finished based on the following criteria:

  • The compost looks like dark brown, crumbly earth
  • The materials used to make the compost have decomposed to the point that they’re no longer recognizable
  • It has a pleasant, earthy smell
  • The piles temperature stays cool, even after turning

The composting process leaches nitrogen until it’s done decomposing.  If you use unfinished compost in your garden it’ll continue decomposing and will leach nitrogen from your plants.  Therefore it’s worth waiting until your compost is complete (see steps above).  Finished compost is like black gold for your garden and is well worth the wait.

 

Photo Credit: better compost, a photo by normanack on Flickr.

One Response to “How to Make Compost”

  1. Keiwan says:

    Smack-dab what I was looinkg for-ty!

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