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 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.


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

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tracking the Journey North

Since we had a harsh winter, I was wondering if there would be a delay in the arrival of the Ruby-throated hummingbird. The delay only seems to be about a week according to reported sightings of these creatures on their migration journey northward.

The Ruby-throated hummingbird migrates north in the spring to breed. They fly from Central America up to the U.S. In winter, they feed from southern Mexico to northern Panama. Their journey north may begin as early as January, feeding off of insects found in northern Mexico. They fatten up, nearly doubling in weight, for the long journey, sometimes flying for 8 to 10 hours at a time with no rest until they reach the southern coast of the U.S. Then, the birds move northward at about 20 miles a day, feeding on the nectar from plants as they move along. The entire migration north takes about three months for all the birds to reach their destinations. They tend to return to the same place every year, usually the area where they were born visiting the same feeders.

Recently, I found a very helpful resource in tracking the migration of these incredible birds. The Annenberg Learner web site, a teaching and learning resource, provides migration maps for various birds and other creatures. The site has maps that track the migration of Monarch butterflies, Gray whales, and Baltimore Orioles, just to name a few. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird Spring 2014 Migration Map shows reported sightings of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as they migrate north.

I have already put my feeders out as I do not have very many flowers blooming except for daffodils, cherry blossoms, and hellebores. I am ready for their arrival, waiting for that flutter of a wing, so quick, so delightful.

© copyright 2014 Michelle A. Potter

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Garden Notebook - April 2014

King of the Striped Crocus

Winter seems to have made a strong refusal to leave and allow spring to take over. We have had snow this month, very cold temperatures, and some periods of rain and wintry mix precipitation. However, all of that does not seem to hinder the emergence of spring for many of the plants in the garden. Spring manages to squeeze in a few days here and there of warm temperatures that whisper a soft tune to all the plants that spring is coming despite winter's resistance.

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