Composting Basics

Compost happens on its own – it's a natural phenomenon. If you pile leaves, grass clippings and small twigs in a corner of your yard, eventually you'll find they have transformed into a dark, fluffy, crumbly material: compost. While you can allow compost to happen on its own, it can take some time. You can help speed things along if you understand the process.

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Compost is the end-result of decomposing organic matter, such as fallen leaves, eggshells, grass clippings and coffee grounds. The work of breaking down the organic matter is done by microorganisms, fungi, and soil fauna (Earthworms, Millipedes, Ants, etc.). Creating an environment that provides ideal conditions for these organisms is the most efficient way to make compost.  Left alone, decomposition takes a few months to several years. But if you create ideal conditions for the decomposers, you'll get compost a lot faster, maybe in as little as 14 days.

The best part of compost is that it's nearly free for the making and takes little work.  In a just few hours, you can easily assemble a no-frills compost pile and be on your way to harvesting nature’s finest soil amendment.

The Benefits Of Compost

Nothing is better for the garden than compost. Called "black gold" by many experienced gardeners, compost is an ideal soil amendment -  it enhances soil structure, improves plant health and helps control weeds.

Increased Fertility. Compost enriches soil with a broad spectrum of nutrients, including enzymes and minerals, in a form that's easily taken up by plant roots. It releases these nutrients slowly, over time, creating a fool-proof fertilizer that won't burn plants. You can't use too much compost. Even if you do add fertilizer to soil, microorganisms present in compost help plants absorb those nutrients more efficiently.

Improved Soil Structure. Adding compost improves soil structure and texture, regardless of the type of soil you have. Clay soils loosen and are better aerated, sandy soils hold more water, and well-balanced soils become even richer. Compost also reduces soil compaction and surface crusting, which can improve drainage.

More Beneficials. Compost increases the number and activity level of beneficial soil creatures, including microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, algae and Nematodes, as well as visible critters such as Earthworms, Ants and Millipedes. These are the organisms that break down organic matter and converts nutrients into forms plant roots can easily absorb. When soil fauna is healthy and doing its important job, like it is in compost, the organisms can also help suppress certain diseases that attack plants.

Controlling Weeds. Compost is a valuable mulch to help suppress weeds, while providing vital nutrients to plants as it decomposes. Done properly and reaching high enough temperatures, composting can even kill some weed seeds.

Other benefits.  Making compost is a positive for the environment by reducing the amount of yard waste entering local landfills. And if your city requires payment to pick up yard waste, creating a compost pile can help reduce that fee. Using compost in planting beds can also reduce the amount of money you'll spend on water, fertilizer and weed control.

Begin With The Right Ingredients

Decomposers need four things to produce compost: carbon, nitrogen, water and oxygen. Provide these ingredients in a balanced way, and you'll get a fast turnaround from raw materials to finished compost.

Add Carbon. Materials rich in carbon (often called "browns") are the energy food for decomposers. High-carbon materials are usually brown or tan, tough, and dry. Examples include, cornstalks, dry leaves, straw and dry garden refuse.

Add Nitrogen. High-nitrogen materials (often called "greens") provide the protein for decomposers. Most nitrogen-rich items are green and moist, such as spent annuals, grass clippings and garden prunings. Kitchen scraps also fall into this group, including non-green things like coffee grounds and eggshells. Even though manures or meals (blood meal, kelp meal, etc.) aren't green or moist, they are excellent sources of nitrogen.

Add Water. Like all living things, decomposers need moisture to thrive. How much is enough? A good rule of thumb is to keep your compost pile as moist as a well-wrung sponge. You should water a compost pile if it gets too dry. Covering a pile with a tarp, clear plastic, or using an enclosed container can help maintain even moisture.

Aerate. Your army of decomposing organisms also needs oxygen to do its job. As materials start to decompose in your pile, they settle and air pockets disappear. So, it's vital to aerate your pile. Turning the pile is usually the easiest way to accomplishes this. Many manufactured compost bins have air vents that are also very effective. If you are building your own compost pile, consider building it off the ground – on a pallet or layer of branches. Some gardeners insert one or two pieces of 4-inch perforated plastic pipe into the center of the pile; then shake the pipe vigorously every other week to increase airflow into the compost.

When you have the right ingredients present in the right proportions, composting occurs quickly. The decomposition process generates heat, which is key for destroying weed seeds, insect pests and disease organisms, and one of the surest signs that everything is working as planned (you might even see steam from the pile).  Some gardeners use compost thermometers to check a piles progress. Turning the pile frequently ensures that adequate heat is maintained to produce problem-free compost. When a pile quits producing heat, it’s usually a good sign the process is done and you can start using your “black gold”.

Follow A Recipe — Or Don’t!

Compost gurus will tell you the ideal ratio of brown (carbon-rich) to green (nitrogen-rich) materials in a compost pile is 25:1. Compost piles with too much brown and not enough green may take years to breakdown. Too much green and not enough brown results is a smelly, wet pile that isn’t compost.

However, achieving a perfect 25:1 ratio isn't necessary to make great compost. Remember, it's a natural process and natural usually finds a way.

Try this method:

  • Layer materials in a pile, aiming for three to four times as much brown as green. For the fastest results – called "hot composting" – layer green and brown materials in a 1:1 ratio.
  • Build layers that are about 3-4 inches thick.
  • Sprinkle a shovelful of finished compost or topsoil (both contain decomposers) evenly between layers.
  • As you build, water every other layer.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

Composting Fallacies

Compost smells bad. Actually, properly composting, the only odor a pile gives off is an earthy, damp-soil aroma. If your compost pile smells, its rotting instead of decomposing, and you're doing something wrong, such as keeping the pile too moist or adding too much green material.

Composting is Time Consuming. While there's no free lunch in gardening, making compost comes pretty close. The most time-consuming part of composting is probably learning how to do it right. Depending on the size of your pile, moving finished compost from bin to planting beds can also prove to be challenging, requiring both time and muscle, as can turning a pile by hand. Beyond that, adding materials and letting the process occur on its own, doesn’t take loads of time or effort.

You need a lot of space. You really don't need much room to generate ample compost. Small compost bins and tumblers, available in nurseries and garden centers, offer ideal solutions for small yards. Even if you live in an apartment or condominium, you can produce compost using worm composters or automatic indoor compost bins.

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