Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Composting Part III: How to Make Perfect Compost

Photo - University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse

Decomposition will happen no matter what you do with kitchen scraps or garden waste, but in this post we want to talk about how to make it happen more quickly. This is sometimes referred to as Active Composting or Aerobic Composting. By performing a few tasks when composting, you can ensure that you will have perfect compost in a few months. Perfect compost is organic matter that has fully decomposed and is ready to use as a natural fertilizer in the garden. It is easy to make and so beneficial for your plants.

Location, Location


One of the most important elements to making perfect compost is to locate the compost pile or bin in the best possible place.

First, the compost pile or bin needs to be located in a spot that is convenient for you to visit on a regular basis. If you live on a large piece of land, you do not want to locate the pile very far from the house because you will be adding organic matter to the pile, turning the pile, and observing the pile regularly. Having said that, you may not want to locate it right beside the house because compost does naturally attract insects and spiders and some mammals. There are some things you can do to keep the mammal pests out of your compost, but the insects and spiders are always going to be part of your pile. Try to locate the compost pile or bin away from the house but close enough that you do not find it a chore to frequently walk out to the pile.

Second, the pile should not be located in a spot that receives full sun the entire day. The sun and heat will dry out the pile, and you will be watering it more frequently than necessary. Compost needs to always be moist. Try to locate the compost bin or pile in an area that receives part shade and part sun throughout the day.

Third, your compost pile or bin should be located on a well-drained site. If you notice the area where you would like to locate your compost bin or pile puddles after a rain, that may not be the best place for your compost pile. The water will puddle into the pile and create a waterlogged pile. This can cause all sorts of problems, preventing you from creating a healthy environment for your compost pile.

And finally, try to locate your compost pile or bin away from large trees. If you locate your pile or bin under a large tree, the tree's feeder roots will find all of that nutritious compost and create a webbing around parts of the pile. If this is your best spot for the pile, then spread weed fabric or a mesh on the bottom of your pile to prevent this from happening.



Size Matters


The size of your compost pile or bin matters. If your compost pile or bin is too large, there will not be enough oxygen to reach the center of the pile. If the compost pile or bin is too small, there will not be enough of a heat build-up for the decomposition to happen rapidly. Remember, decomposition will happen no matter what you do, but in this post we want to accelerate that process. With a compost pile that is too large or too small, the accelerated composting process will be compromised. For optimal decomposition, the best size for a compost pile or bin is larger than 3' x 3' x 3' and smaller than 5' x 5' x 5'.  Any sizes between those sizes is fine as well, such as 3' x 4' x 3' or 4' x 4' x 5', etc.


Composting Ingredients


The composting process requires a recipe of organic materials to accelerate the decomposition process. When you combine these elements at the right amounts, the decomposition process begins to happen immediately. Organic matter added to a compost pile is comprised of greens, browns, air or oxygen, and water.

Photo - University of Illinois Extension

Greens and Browns


Greens, the nitrogen element, is made up of kitchen waste, grass clippings, or garden waste, to name a few. Browns, the carbon element, is made up of things, such as leaves, newspaper, or cardboard. One way to differentiate between these two composting elements is to think of Greens as a more wet part of the recipe and Browns as a more dry part of the recipe. Greens provide a source of protein to the microbes in the pile breaking down organic matter. And Browns provide a source of energy to the microbes in the pile.

Oxygen


Oxygen is added to the pile when you periodically turn the pile. The oxygen is required by the microbes to function properly. Turn the pile a couple of times a week in warm weather and once a week in cooler weather. The pile needs to be turned to add oxygen to the pile and to prevent the pile from overheating. If the pile gets too hot, some organisms may die, reducing optimal decomposition time. Optimal temperature of the pile should be between 135° F and 160° F.

Water


All the decomposing organisms in your compost pile need water to live. Microorganisms and macro-organisms require a moist environment to properly function in the pile.


Composting Recipe


Layer or mix Greens and Browns. The ratio of Browns to Greens should be 4:1 by volume. In other words add four times as many Browns to one part Greens in the pile.

Shape the compost pile so the center is lower than the sides to ensure water can penetrate the center of the pile. If the center is higher than the sides, water will roll off the sides and not penetrate the pile.

Maintain proper moisture levels for optimal composting. Moisture content of the pile should be the same as a well-squeezed sponge. This means there will be times when you need to water the compost pile to maintain this moisture level.

These are simple measures that anyone can integrate into their composting process to create perfect compost. After a while, the composting recipe and process will become an easy part of your gardening tasks.

Next month Composting Part IV: What to Compost, What Not to Compost

 If you missed the start of the series, here are the first two posts:

Composting Part I - All About Compost
Composting Part II - Advantages and Disadvantages of Compost Bins and Piles



© copyright 2014 Michelle A. Potter

32 comments:

  1. I have a compost pile, but......it is situated under a large tree (wrong) and most important, turning the compost pile every week?, help, I am so sorry but I just manage to do that once a year (wrong). Nevertheless, I am looking forward to your next compost post.

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    1. There is no right or wrong when it comes to composting. This is a post to make compost more quickly (Active Composting), but whatever works for you is just fine. Compost will happen, slowly or quickly, whether you participate in the process or not. :)

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  2. You are so right composting will happen no matter what, but like you mention, gardeners always want it happening faster. I use black tree grower pots that are similar to what I had as a commercial composter, but smaller at 3'x3' round. If I had space, I would use the wooden bins as shown, but having three of these posts to rotate and turn works out great for small gardens. The heavy black plastic really keeps the compost cooking. I do keep them moist at all times and they sit on the North side of my house, mostly shaded through the day. You have great tips for gardeners new to composting. Many would not use paper goods for instance. I do along with pet hair. It is a nice post for Earth Day because many don't think how their waste can turn into something great for the environment.

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  3. That is a great explanation of composting. I don't know why but I have always been hesitant to put paper and cardboard in my compost, maybe I will try it. Our compost bin is a former manure pit with ten foot stone walls. We have two piles against the back wall.

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  4. Thanks for reminding me I need to add some oxygen. ;-) I haven't turned it in a while and I'm going to want to use some of it soon! Great post, and a good one for Earth Day!

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  5. So much information, Michelle... I had to read once more! Thank you!

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    1. I wanted to add: my compost boxes are in part shadow, but I think I need more water there.
      http://northern-garden.blogspot.com

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  6. Just the sort of information which you would want to bookmark and keep. Done it, perhaps I wont have to wait two years for results next time

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  7. Michele, Thank you so much for your lovely comment on my blog!
    I also teach MG classes on composting, but somehow you do it so much better. I'm serious. P. x

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  8. Great advice there - though I have to admit that I never turn my compost, I never seem to have the time or energy, so I am grateful for the fact that it works anyway, although it certainly takes longer. Worth waiting for though!

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  9. Thanks for letting me know what I was doing wrong! We put way more green than brown, we rarely turn the stuff, and our plastic compost bin doesn't measure up size-wize. We do get compost, but it take a long time. Now I know why!

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  10. It's always good to review practices of common gardening techniques ... even those that have become second nature. I find winter the perfect time to reflect on gardening practices and early spring a great time to physically review - and fix, where necessary - my compost piles. Your advice is perfect for first time and seasoned composters.

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  11. I need to pay more attention to my compost piles. Since we usually get a drought here every summer, my compost piles usually dry out. :( That is the biggest challenge I think I have with mine, as well as turning, which is just hard work! I do love putting more into the compost pile, though - it makes me feel really good about reusing what would otherwise be waste.

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  12. This is a great advice, but do you really add more brown ingredients (newspapper) then the green ones?

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  13. one lesson we learnt soon after we moved here. Our first choice, quite near the kitchen but against the afternoon sun facing garden wall was too HOT! Now we have a slatted roof over the bin (and moved along a bit) and it seems happy.

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  14. I'm a lazy composter, and now I see all the things I've been doing wrong! Locating it in full sun all day is mistake number one. I'm amazed at all the things you put in your compost pile--I need to buy your book!

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  15. What great advice! I think my compost bin is a little too small, as it seems to compost rather slowly (though there are a few other things I'm not doing quite right, as well, now that I'm reading this... must add more browns..)

    I was reading a magazine the other day and it had a plan for how to build a compost bench - a bench where you could lift up the seat and underneath would be your compost pile. I had to laugh. Who would want to sit on a compost pile with all the bugs all over and around?! I don't think the person who thought of this plan had ever had a compost pile before...

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  16. I do worm composting, which works out well for me since I don't have space for large compost bins. Plus, I don't have to worry about my compost freezing. Fortunately, my worms never take a day off and even though they don't produce huge amounts of compost, I'm able to harvest the goods about once a month. Great post!

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  17. Another very helpful post. We add soil as a layer every once in a while and that works quite well.

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  18. Do you wash the chopsticks and the pizza boxes before you put them on the compost heap to prevent attracting vermin? Or isn't that a problem?

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  19. Hopefully this year I will have more time to devote to the compost piles....the turning never happened so i will cheat and dig under looking for compost.

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  20. Just the post I needed to read!! I'm giving a composting class next month and am trying to organize my ideas into a cohesive whole. this was a helpful reminder of some of the things I need to cover. Thank you :))

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  21. Great post! Very informative. By composting, we gardeners can turn garbage into something useful -food for the plants.

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  22. I am a big fan of composting and this is a great, thorough post on how to begin and how to be successful at composting!

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  23. Ants and bees seem to take a liking to my compose heaps every year and I hate to disturb them!! I can't use or turn the stuff until the wild life has disappeared!

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'I see trees of green, red roses, too
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