Managing Compost + New Things I've Learned
It's been a while since we've talked about my compost pile and composting in general; in fact, it's been about 6 months, and that seems like a long time in retrospect to how decomposition goes! Truthfully, it was perfect timing because although a lot was happening in the pile itself, with microorganisms breaking down our waste, there wasn't much of a physical difference to witness until about a month ago. And even then, when I saw things changing, I learned just recently that I was still doing a few things a bit wrong with my pile! I am really excited to talk to you today about what I have learned and am continuing to learn. Becoming a Master Gardener is really fun and while it is a short education of sorts to become a better community member, one with research-based knowledge in my pocket to dive into and educate others with, that doesn't make me a horticulturist. Though, I am kind of considering becoming that... maybe it will happen! I am not really sure yet. Either way, let's talk about decomposing matter for a bit! At the end of this post, I have a free downloadable chart that you can use to remind you want can and cannot go into your compost pile if you are a beginner. It fits on a sized piece of printer paper so you can just laminate and stick it on your fridge or wherever you collect compost waste!
When I first started composting back in February or March, I was having a heck of a time. The thing with the internet and even a book written by someone, anyone... they have an opinion! Or they have ideas that their grandma taught them that may not necessarily be true. What do you do? I suppose you do what I did, you just go for it! I started piling up waste from our kitchen, waste from the garden we were building, and other things I could put in like broken up sticks and twigs, chicken manure, cardboard, etc. The thing with compost is that you need a balance. What is that balance exactly? The experts say that it's a ratio of C:N, carbon to nitrogen, and the exact numerical ratio for that is 25:1 to 40:1.
25-40 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. And that made sense. It started to make sense why so many compost pile fail! Most people have a heck of a lot of nitrogen, or fresh scraps from your kitchen, and not a whole lot of carbon. And as the year begins to trek along, you start collecting that carbon along the way. What I didn't realize was the carbon can actually be plant parts as well, but they have to be dried, and I think that as I was adding a lot of dried plant parts to our pile, I was assuming that it would be considered a "green" material and send my pile into a rot. I was surprised as I watched my compost pile turn into that beautiful black "humus," or the organic matter, that everyone says is ideal.
I am beginning to realize now that we are about to have an entire load of carbon coming into our midst... falling autumn leaves! I think that's something that I have actually had an underlying anxiety about, whether I'd have enough carbon materials coming into my home or not. Truthfully, I recycle most of our cardboard because I don't have time to break up every single box I come across. Perhaps over winter, I'll be using more of that or trying to compost more paper products. It's hard to decide which paper product is okay to put into your pile because so many sources say that many things are not okay. What I learned was that most paper products are okay, as long as they aren't heavily dyed (like colored craft paper), so newspaper and paper printed with black inks is okay, and they aren't glossy. Okay! That makes me feel like that area is more well defined.
If you've read my composting posts in the past, I give you a pretty basic break down of what materials can and cannot go into the pile and why they are called the certain names that they are. I feel like I am starting to ramble here, and if it becomes confusing as you are just wanting to start your first compost pile, please go over and read that post first! There's also this post about which bugs your pile should attract and bad odors that can come from a bad mix!
Here is what I learned I was doing completely WRONG. This entire time! You see, I understood that by adding all of these things into a pile and turning it at least once a week that I would eventually get this finished product, the "black gold," the humus. And I did! But I didn't realize that once my pile achieved a certain size that I was supposed to stop adding things to it. Yeah. And if you are reading that statement and saying, well duh, then you are one step ahead of me. I could never understand how a finished product was achieved if I was continually adding more materials into my pile. There was a moment in time where I wasn't adding much to it at all; I had begun feeding more scraps to my chickens and had also introduced two other composting systems into my home. If you don't have space for an outdoor pile, definitely check those out!
In hindsight, I think that small window of where I was only adding a few things a week to my pile was beneficial to my pile and to its process overall. I am glad that it just naturally happened! But what if you didn't know that? You see, you can never have a finished product if there are still raw materials inside the pile. That means that the materials still look appear in the original form you added them, like a banana peel or a corn stalk. Once they look like black dirt, crumbly and moist, then you have achieved humus. You can see above that pile looks mostly like humus and some straw that accidentally got mixed in from the pile next door. If you continue to add new things, humus will not be achieved, and you're just going to end up with this really big pile that never advances.
To achieve humus, you want to think of your pile like lasagna. Start by building it up in layers: a layer of browns (carbon), a layer of greens (nitrogen), and a layer of microbes. Don't fall for someone trying to sell you compost microbes in a container! You can get microbes right in your backyard; take a shovel, scoop up a few layers of topsoil, and put it into your compost pile. They're already alive in your soil! Don't worry, the bugs will come. If you are going to purchase anything at all for your compost, it should maybe be some earthworms. They help the process go by a lot faster! But you don't even have to do that. As you layer, the pile will get bigger and once it reaches a collective size of 3'x3'x3' (3 feet height, width, and depth) then you stop adding things! Isn't that perfect? Why didn't I know that?!
Honestly, I was totally stressing out about this simple fact because I felt like I couldn't use my finished product! It made so much more sense. It also explained why many people have a system that implements working 3-4 different piles at once. I already have two. One is filled with a little bit of everything, the other is just chicken manure and chicken bedding. I was scared after someone told me that mixing the chicken manure into the pile could cause it to not work: that is false. Once compost looks like compost, unless it's infested with bugs that aren't good, you can use it whenever you want or just bag it up and store somewhere cool and dry.
Moving forward, I've created a new pile, a third one. It's starting to grow! I would like to create a structure made of pallets, like little stalls (you've probably seen them), to house the three piles. My first pile, the one I started in early spring, is basically finished. You can still see some raw materials in it because they were added recently. That's really okay. It really is. My plan? I will be using the first pile's compost on our garden and lasagna style layering it up, while leaving behind perennial structures to house overwintering insects, and piling the chicken manure pile over top of that. Your manure does not have to be finished to overwinter in the garden. I was unsure about that, but was happy to learn it was true. I have witnessed other gardeners in the area, mainly Amish families, that put fresh horse manure on their gardens in the spring, and they still grow things. I will talk more about our autumn garden break down next week!
If you're a new composter, don't fret. I'll break it down for you again:
- Start your pile by layering your materials like lasagna: green layer, brown layer, microbe layer. Not sure what green and brown materials are? Download my list below! Or click HERE.
- Once your piled layers reach a collective size of 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet, stop adding new things and just manage it! This means "turning it over" which is most easily done by pulling out things from the center of the pile and adding whatever is on edges to the center, then piling what you pulled out back on top. Make sure you get a pitchfork. I used a rake + shovel for about 3 months before getting one... that was just stupid. Ha! Managing is also checking to make sure it's not too wet or too dry. Your pile should be like a damp sponge or washcloth; only a few drops of water come out when squeezed. If it's too dry, water it, and if it's too wet then add more carbon materials.
- Good compost can take anywhere from 3 months to a year to create. We've been working it for 6 months without managing it as often as I would like, turning sometimes once every two weeks, and it looks like this! It doesn't smell and it doesn't attract flies or ants. I am really proud! My instructor even suggested turning your pile a couple of times a day. That seems kind of unrealistic for the average person, but that would mean compost in a matter of months rather than a year.
- You don't have to cure your compost. I keep reading this everywhere! You don't have to cure it or put it through some process of drying it out before using it. If it looks ready, then just use it. Or bag it up! You can keep it in a brown paper lawn bag in your garage, give it to friends, or sell it. Just make sure you made a good batch aka you didn't add weeds that were about to go to seed or plastic materials. Be smart!
I am really excited to see how this new pile goes, especially since we are about to enter colder months and eventually we'll get some snow. I had read that composting in my zone (5b) was almost impossible in winter, but I am determined to prove that wrong! It's suggested to cover your compost with a tarp so it doesn't get snowed on, but just learned that if you're doing it right, when snow touches it, it will just melt because the pile is so hot. I need to get a compost thermometer! I suppose if you have a pile that has finished its hot process, like how my original one is now, then it might need to be covered if it's not being used immediately.
What was your year like composting? I've learned so much and had a really great first year! I am excited to share next week how we are planning to overwinter our garden with organic practices. If you are in the same boat, please wait for that post, because I have some really great information about not cleaning up your garden for winter! Also... we'll be cutting out our second half of the garden this weekend! YAY! We're tripling the entire size; cannot wait to share more.