Thursday, May 30, 2013

Composting - Part I, All About Compost

Compost Bin

For many gardeners, composting is just another part of gardening--a way to continue the cycle of life in the garden. I have been composting for over 25 years, and I enjoy having a way to reuse the waste from the garden and the kitchen. It has become a part of my gardening and cooking rituals. Whatever can decompose naturally in the compost pile goes in the compost pile. And within a few months, I have a natural and nutrient-rich soil amendment for my plants. I love composting so much that when the opportunity arose for me to teach composting in my community, I easily accepted the volunteer position. Most people are excited and anxious to begin composting once they learn how easy it is to do. Rarely do I encounter someone who finds the entire process a waste of time.



This is the first post of a composting series that I plan to do over the next few months. I will go over all the aspects of composting from advantages and disadvantages of compost bins to where to locate your compost bin or pile to how to make compost...and much more. Composting is very easy and can be done by anyone.

Fresh Compost - Image from Cornell University

What is Compost?

Compost has sometimes been referred to as brown manure or black gold. It is organic matter that is in the process of decaying or has decomposed.

Why Compost?

Composting has so many benefits to our gardens, our environment, our lives, our world. Here are some of the most important reasons to compost:

  • Compost reduces waste in the landfill because many of the things that usually go in the trash can go in the compost pile. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors materials that go into the landfills. In 2010, they estimated that approximately half of all municipal solid waste was compostable materials.
  • Compost recycles waste to create a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is rich in microorganisms. Besides nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, compost also includes micronutrients, such as copper, iron, manganese and zinc. Commercial fertilizers only contain one or some of the three of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium.
  • Compost improves soil structure and increases the ease of cultivation when added and mixed in to soil. Clay soils, for example, can be difficult to cultivate because of the hard and clumpy texture. By adding and mixing in compost, the soil no longer clumps and hardens but allows roots to easily spread and grow.
  • Compost reduces fertilizer requirements by adding a nutrient-rich amendment to the soil that provides a balanced source of plant nutrients.
  • Compost improves water infiltration and drought tolerance. Compost can hold up to 4 times its own weight in water, and so maintains a lot more moisture than soil alone.
Composting Science

Understanding the science behind composting helps us understand more deeply the process of composting.
  • Composting is a biological process whereby microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, chemically feed on composting materials to create decomposition. They need carbon and nitrogen to build protein and create energy.

  • Macroorganisms, such as insects, spiders, and worms, physically feed on composting materials to create decomposition. It is perfectly normal to see these creatures in and around compost.
  • Microorganisms need oxygen to function properly. Turning the compost pile frequently adds oxygen to the pile, and exposes weed seeds and disease organisms to the high heat of the pile.
  • Healthy microbes will turn up the temperature of the pile through their metabolism, reproduction, and conversion of composting materials to energy.
What Compost is Not
  • Compost is a smelly pile of mess.
Compost does not have an unpleasant odor. Compost smells like earthy rich soil. A smelly pile usually means there is too much nitrogen and not enough carbon in the pile.

My Compost Pile

  • Compost attracts rats and other vermin.
The only vermin that are attracted to my compost pile are raccoons and rabbits. Rats are usually attracted to meat and fats which should not go in the compost pile. To deter animal pests from the compost pile, use a completely enclosed bin or sprinkle black or cayenne pepper on the compost and around the area.

Composting - Image from Cornell University

  • Composting is hard.
Composting is very easy. Once you have the know-how and the recipe, it is very easy to do. Scraps and garden waste will decay even if you do nothing. It is a natural process.
  • Composting costs a lot of money.
Composting costs absolutely nothing. Create a pile, add kitchen and garden waste, and there is no expense. Of course, you can buy a bin and a few tools to assist you in composting, but you do not need these to begin composting.

Next month in this composting series:

Advantages and Disadvantages of Compost Bins and Piles


© copyright 2013 Michelle A. Potter

34 comments:

  1. Composting is great if you have the room for it. I've racked my brains over these past years trying to find a place to make all of this happen. Very tricky as we live in an HOA type setting.

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    1. I know space can be limited at times. Sometimes it may be easier to use trench composting or some other method.

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    2. Chris -- I've never done it myself, but I listen to Felder Rushing's show/podcast and he is constantly advocating vermiculture composting (raising worms) which he says can be done in a garage, or even indoors, and that all you need are those long flat plastic sweater storage bins like they sell at Target or the like. Might be worth looking into.

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  2. I love composting. It is so fulfilling to see kitchen waste, weeds, leaves, cardboard, etc. turn into "black gold!" It's so good for the garden, too. We compost everything that is readily decomposable and even so, cannot make enough compost for our large gardens. We do end up purchasing some as well. We would like to add compost to every area of the garden every year; realistically, it's probably done in each area every two years. This is a good article and I look forward to reading your upcoming posts.

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    1. I agree, Beth. I find it so fulfilling. I, too, do not seem to make enough because I use so much of it.

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  3. Thank you for this! I compost but am looking forward to learning if there is something I could be doing better and will be following your posts :) Congratulations on your book, what a great idea.

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    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. And I hope you will find value in the information. It is one of the things I love about gardening.

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  4. I built a compost bin last year out of wooden pallets, but haven't been faithful about using it. Maybe it's too far away from the house. I look forward to reading your future posts about composting.

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    1. I have some friends who have used wooden pallets to build a compost bin. They really like it.

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  5. I'd love to compost and I have been thinking about for years how to practically do it, but still haven’t found a solution. I have no space left in my garden, as you probably have seen from my photos, it is filled to the rafters! But I could put a small compost bin in my front garden, next to my rubbish bins, however, all I know about compost is that you need to turn it regularly and with only one bin how am In supposed to do that? Perhaps you’ll cover that in your next chapter?
    Up until now I have resorted to save my garden waste and let the council collect it for their composting service, at least it doesn’t go to waste, but I’d love to make my own ‘black gold’!
    Looking forward to reading more about this topic :-)

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    1. I know how limited space can be. We used to live in a townhouse with a very small yard. I still think it is so great that your council collects your garden waste to make compost.

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  6. Very useful posts! The soil I have in my garden is poorly fertilized, it is clay like and dries out very soon and becomes hard. I have real trouble in growing strong plants. I might think of composting, sounds easy and handy :)

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    1. I have clay soil as well, and it can be very hard to work with. The compost helps a lot.

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    2. So I have to definitely try to make it.

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  7. Horray for compost. We do a lot of that here and my gardens LOVE it. The best soil amendment ever. Great post

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    1. I agree, Deanne. It is the best. Many years ago, I had a bed of ivy around a tree that grew and spread very, very slowly. I applied all kinds of organic fertilizers and water, but nothing really seemed to help. Then, I sprinkled a little bit of compost around it, and within a few days it began to perk up and come alive. There is definitely something in that compost, some magic, I think. :)

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  8. Michelle, it's a surprise for me: the glove can be composted, and the paper boxes, etc! I always thought to compost is very hard. Do you use the crusher?

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    1. Leather is all natural, so it will decompose. Composting is very easy. I sometimes mulch the leaves to make them smaller, and I tear the newspapers and cardboard into smaller pieces.

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  9. Good post. I too have been composting a very long time. Each day I actually enjoy taking the stuff out to feed the compost pile. Birds like to pick from it too when fruit and veggies get put in it. Squirrels are diners too, but never mice or rats.

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    1. I never see mice and rats, but I have had people in the classes mention it. I guess it depends what is around your pile.

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  10. I've been making worm compost for 7 years. It's amazing stuff! I'm convinced it has anti-fungal properties but have only found a bit of supporting scientific evidence. I've added tons - literally!- of compost to amend my clay soil and it's worked wonders. I hope your students leave excited to give composting a try. :o)

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    1. I love vermicomposting. I have not taken the step to actually use the vermicomposting bins, but I have worms in my compost piles. I have also heard of the anti-fungal properties of it as well.

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  11. Compost is black magic, in the best possible sense, I love it. We now have 5 compost bins, all simmering away at different stages, and it makes my heart sing every time I see them. I will read these posts with great interest though, as one can always learn more.

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    1. Yes and yes! It is black magic with a mysterious healing element like nothing else. So glad to hear you are a compost lover, too.

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  12. Nice review of compost, wonderful sweet smelling stuff! And its such fun to make! As you know I have been blogging about worm compost.

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    1. Thank you, Roger. It is something I love doing and sharing with others.

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  13. I still have not mastered composting because I need to take control of the pile and master it...too much of this and not enough of that...love the book by the way! Looking forward to more in this series.

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    1. It can sometimes be a challenge. I often have students that have been composting for a while but have a few challenging issues. I hope the series helps. And thank you very much for the feedback on the book. I am so glad you like it. :)

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  14. This is a wonderfully informative article that should ward off concerns some have about composting. Like you, I've been composting for decades. It is part of my family's daily life and the value of it is now instilled in our children who will pass it down to their children. The cycle of life teaching the cycle of life.

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    1. I wish more saw it as you do. It really is something that works best as part of our daily lives. To me, it is a beautiful metaphor for the cycle of life...as it is in actuality.

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  15. By creating our own compost, we no longer purchase any soil amendments. Between the poultry, goats, and garden waste, we generate a lot of material every year. You're right, composting isn't difficult. If you want compost in a hurry, it does require a little more effort to turn and aerate the pile more frequently, but generally, compost just happens.

    Here the greatest challenge we face in the summer months is ensuring there's enough moisture in the pile. Obviously it shouldn't be saturated, but in a normal year here we lack much rainfall between May and October, so we do have to remember to add water occasionally. This year it's barely rained since January! I did used to find, before we had the farm, that bins really were useful though. I stopped the piles from becoming unsightly and creeping away, or being pulled across the yard. Here we just have a large compost 'mountain' ;)

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    1. With your farm, you must be able to create very large amounts of compost. We sometimes have drought periods in the summer and must water the compost pile. This year has given us lots of rain...so far.

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'I see trees of green, red roses, too
I see 'em bloom for me and for you
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