Garden Q+A: How to Begin Composting
Compost! It's basically a pile full of bug poo and decay, but it is absolutely necessary for your garden if you wish to grow bountiful, beautiful plants as well as create an incredible microbial balance in your soil. The soil is the most important aspect of growing vegetables, or any plants really, but I think most of us are here because we want to grow our own food. There is a lot of information about soil and compost out there, though sometimes it can feel really vague. You get just the tip of the iceberg when you search for it, or perhaps you have too many different sources of information that are all confusing and go back on each others' words. I get that!
Over the past couple of years I have been able to take some classes and workshops on building an ideal compost pile as well as composting in different ways, other than a simple pile of kitchen scraps. I am not an expert; my experience does not lean towards expert in any way. However, I am one of the few gardeners I have met that makes my own compost or composts at all, and I am the only person I know within my ring of friends and acquaintances that vermicomposts (composting with earthworms). Vermicomposting is amazing, and I highly recommend it!
Composting is essentially piling up wasted plant material or animal feces (not your dog and cat's poo - they eat meat) and turning it at least once a week so that it becomes really hot. Eventually, after several months, it will begin to break down into this fluffy, brown material called humus. This is pure organic matter which makes up to 15% of the soil. This is essential for growing large juicy fruits and vegetables! It is a sustainable practice as most of the waste that you can compost would otherwise be sitting in a landfill. While it would breakdown there anyway, the sustainable part is that you are taking the food you have eaten, breaking it down, spreading it in your garden, and then growing more food. It is a "circle of life" act, a full revolving door. This is your way of saying, "I can give back to my garden and gain even more."
You can keep compost in a matter of ways. There are special bins you can keep it in, ones that rotate with a simple lever, or some use a modified garbage can. I like to keep mine in a big pile, just open and uncovered in the back of the farm. We generate too much compostable material to keep it in a tiny bin. When we lived on the Little Homestead (a residential lot) I still kept an open pile, and it worked well. You can always make it a little prettier by adding some pallets with an open front for easy access to turning, or I have seen some line their pile with straw bales. This idea is actually ingenious because as you add "green" materials, the straw can be pulled from and added to the pile for needed carbon!
Speaking of green materials, there are two basic components to compost that are extremely important:
- GREEN MATERIALS: fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, fresh leaves and plants, grass clippings, feathers, seaweed, manure (from non-meat eating animals i.e. chickens, ducks, cows, goats, etc)
- BROWN MATERIALS: dried leaves, twigs, sawdust, potting soil, dryer lint, dried flowers, hair, straw, pine needles and cones, paper towels (with no chemical residue), eggshells, bread, grains, corncobs, newspaper
- DO NOT INCLUDE: meats, oils, weeds that have seeded, fats, grease, diseased plants, sand, charcoal, colored or glossy paper, pet feces, dead animals, large branches, cheese, dairy, pressure treated lumber
These materials are what make up a healthy compost pile. Ideally, you will want a balanced ratio of each around 25:1 or 40:1, C:N. You need lots more carbon materials than nitrogen materials to achieve the balance needed for the pile to heat up and begin decomposing. This sounds extremely high, but it is the main reason why many first-time composters fail. They have a LOT of green materials from their kitchen and not enough brown materials.
So, you've built a pile... Now what? This was the hardest part of composting for me to understand, and I hope this helps you out in the long run! As you build your pile, you'll want to remember that ratio of 25:1. It's really easy to go outside and dump your kitchen scraps everyday. When you do that, make sure you pile on some brown materials like straw or dried leaves afterwards. You should layer your pile like lasagna. A layer of green materials, a layer of brown, a layer of green, and so on.
Once your pile reaches a dimension of 4 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft then it's time to stop adding to it and to start managing it. This means turning. Buy a pitchfork! Don't think you can get away with a rake or a shovel. I've tried both. The pitchfork is much nicer and easier on your back. Turn your pile by pulling out the center and putting the side of the pile into the middle. Place the center parts on the outside. It's the easiest way to "turn" it and make sure everything get a chance at the hot, hot center. Turn it at least once a week, but you can turn it every day. In my ideal world, I'd like to say I turn mine everyday, but that usually adds up to about twice a week. The more you turn it, the faster it finishes.
Compost is finished when it no longer looks like the materials that you first put in there. It looks like crumbly dark brown potting soil in the end, and is really quite beautiful. As you manage your pile, look for clues that it is doing well. Are there bugs in it, like pill bugs and worms? You can purchase worms online (get red wigglers over night crawlers - they will actually live in your pile!) to add to your pile to help move it along and add beneficial worm castings. Is the pile sopping wet or dry? Compost needs water. If your pile is bone dry and crispy, you may have to water it. It should be like a sponge, moist but doesn't not drip water when squeezed. Does your pile stink badly? It probably has too much nitrogen. Add some carbon materials to bring the stink down.
If your pile is attracting wild animals like raccoons or neighborhood dogs, it might just be in the early stages or you might have some materials in it that aren't supposed to be there (meat and cheese?). I have always kept an open pile and have never seen any evidence of wild animals approaching it, even here on the farm! Just turn it and make sure any food scraps you toss in are immediately folded into the pile to prevent that from happening.
That's the basics! If you want more information on composting be sure to check out my previous posts like Composting Basics, Managing Your Compost Pile, or Composting in Your Own Home (vermicomposting and bokashi composting).