Composting is a no fail proposition. While you might not get the speed or amount of results you might like, organic matter will decompose with or without our interference. Composting is simply man’s attempt to harness the benefits that are the result of a natural process. So step into composting with your sleeves rolled up and no fear, just dig in and enjoy the process. Much of how and what each gardener composts is dependent on their own needs, personality and limitations. However, here are the basics that can help you get started.
Compost is a rich mixture of decayed and decaying organic matter that can be used to improve soil structure and provide additional nutrition for plants. Compost generally includes matter at varying degrees of decay. Some become broken down quickly while other items take a little, or a lot, more time. Do not be afraid to use your compost while you can still see matter that needs more decomposition, the microbial activity in the compost will contribute to the increased health of your soil.
Composting works best when the correct combination of organic materials met the best living conditions for the microorganisms and invertebrates found in soil to do their jobs. Soil is naturally full of life, a simple truth that many of us forget. If you build up your compost pile with the right combination of ingredients it will quickly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or higher, which is enough to kill pathogens and weeds. This is called hot or thermophilic composting. This style of composting can produce usable compost in one to three months but requires regular maintenance to keep it working With cold composting it takes little to no effort but the trade off is that it can take between six and twelve months, or sometimes longer, to produce usable compost. The cold compost piles do not get hot enough to kill pathogens or weeds, but for some the lack of maintenance required is an even trade. Both methods produce quality compost in their own time, because organic material will eventually break down no matter what you do, or do not, do.
When you are just getting started, you could go out and buy a lot of expensive things, like bins and tools, but you can also start of with nothing but a shovel. I suggest going somewhere in the middle, do not invest a lot of money until you are sure that you are going to stick with compost. A couple items I suggest even the most frugal beginners to have are a good pair of gloves, shovel, pitchfork and compost thermometer. Composting bins are available in a variety of sizes and looks, which keep everything neat looking while deterring pests. You can also make your own compost bin or simply start of with a small compost pile. Which you chose should be dependent on where you live, the space available to you and the money you want to spend.
Now, if you have decided to go ahead and start composting, the first thing you need to do is decide where to do your composting. Are you going to use a bin, pile, hole or one of the countless other methods of composting and where on your property re you going to let the compost sit? I can give some basic ideas, but the specifics are dependent on your own lifestyle, property and living situation. Remember to be a good neighbor and/or housemate when making these decisions or life can become more unpleasant then a book can help with. The ideal site is convenient for you to work with, including being within reach of your hose and reasonably close to where you want to bring the finished compost, which will be heavy. How much space you need to for your composting depends on the style of composting you plan to take up; bins, tumblers and piles can come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Remember to leave yourself enough extra room to move and work in. The typical backyard composting pile is around one cubic yard, or three feet by three feet by three feet. This size pile can heat up enough to kill most weed seeds and plant pathogens if maintained correctly. You can of course go larger, however turning and maintaining a pile that is more than five cubic feet is extremely cumbersome and slows down the decomposition process.
Once you have your pile location, style and size decided it is time to start building up and adding your organic materials. In between each layer, you should use your hose and sprinkle each layer of organic matter as your build. Everything should end up with the moisture level of a wrung out sponge, so feel free to test your moisture level as you build. Start with a layer of sticks, cornstalks, and other chunky items that is about four inches high. The second four-inch layer should also be brown material; things like leaves, straw, pine needles, paper products and sawdust. The third layer should only be about two or three inches deep and consist of greens; grass clipping, manure, kitchen scraps and leafy plant trimmings. Repeat the second and third layers until your pile is the height you want, normally between three and five feet, then finish off with a top layer or browns to insulate the pile. The smaller the pieces of material that you use are, the past they will decompose. Therefore, if you have a lot of woody material to deal with it might be helpful to rent, borrow or buy a chipper or shredder to help. Break thin branches over your knee or cut them into smaller pieces as your prune. Chop up your weeds with a hoe or spade and tear apart spent plants as you pull them from the garden with gloved hands. It is all right, sometimes even helpful, to leave some materials bulkier to create small air pockets which will allow for better air circulation.
A well-built pile can be left to rot alone, but you can speed up the process by turning and moistening the pile as well as adding additional ingredients as needed. Just a few days after building your pile, it will shrink noticeably. This is a good thing; it means that the decomposers are using up oxygen, which in turn collapses the tiny little spaces between pieces of organic matter in the pile. Without that oxygen the decomposition process with slow down, but never completely stop. Therefore, you do not really have to do anything unless you run into pest or moisture problems. However, if you want to keep the processes going at top speed you will need to bring fresh oxygen into the pile. If you are using a freestanding pile then all you need to do is use a pitchfork and fork the material into a pile right next to the original one, watering as needed. If you are using a container, fork the material onto the ground and then back into the bin, mixing as you go. The easiest option is to use a tumbler, which will turn your compost with a simple crank of a handle, or have two bins so that you can simply transfer your compost from bin from one bin to the next. If you cannot turn the entire pile as I just described then consider getting and aeration tool. These do not introduce as much oxygen into the pile as fully turning the pile, but they do churn things up, which might be enough when working within smaller bins. If our pile needs moisture but you are not planning on turning the sprinkle with water in small increments over a period of time, allowing the water to soak down through the pile. Remember to take advantage of rainstorms and showers for the free water.
When your compost is ready to use it will be a dark, rich brown and resembling soil. Everything should be uniform in size and no individual ingredients should be recognizable as their original form. It is not unusual to find some bits of the larger brown materials that are not fully decomposed. Simply toss them into your next batch r compost and let it finish there. Your pile should now be about a third of its original size, no longer generating significant heat, and giving of a nice earthy smell. It should also be moist, not squishy or completely dry. Try to hold of on using your compost until it reaches this stage, as this is when it is easiest to work with and safest for your lawn and garden.