Compost

From Antivist

Composting improves soil structure and moisture retention. Billions of decaying organisms (25,000 bacteria placed end to end equal one inch) feed, grow, reproduce and die, recycling garden waste into an organic fertilizer and soil conditioner. Composting is the ultimate recycling process � improving soil structure, increasing the soil�s ability to hold moisture, providing soil aeration, fertilization, and nitrogen storage. It buffers pH, releases nutrients, and provides food for microbial life.

Contents

sheet composting

Sheet composting is the process of composting organic matter directly onto the soil as a mulch and letting it decay there, rather than in a heap. Most commonly, this is achieved by sowing a 'green manure' crop such as mustard, alfalfa, or buckwheat, which is then hoed in, preferably just before flowering. This practice can cause temporary nitrogen depletion, but this can be reduced by employing leguminous green manure crops such as lupin, winter tares, field beans, or clover, which are able to fix their own nitrogen supply in root nodules. The nitrogen is then released as the plants decay.

vermicompost

Vermicompost (also called Worm Compost, Vermicast, Worm Castings, Worm Humus or Worm Manure) is the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by some species of earthworm.

Vermicompost, also known as worm castings and vermicast, is very different from compost produced in compost piles by bacterial decay, and is much richer in many nutrients. Worm compost is usually too rich for use as a seed compost, but is useful as a top layer of soil or an addition to potting composts. Some types of pitted seeds are reportedly easier to germinate when placed in vermicompost for several months.

Vermicompost is beneficial for soil in three ways:

  • It improves the physical structure of the soil.
  • It improves the biological properties of the soil (enrichment of micro-organisms, addition of growth hormones such as auxins and gibberellic acid, and addition of enzymes, such as phosphates, cellulase, etc.).
  • It attracts deep-burrowing earthworms already present in the soil.

When beginning a vermicomposting bin, put moist bedding into the bin, and add as many composting worms as available. In hot climates place the bin in the shade or away from midday direct sun. Quantities of kitchen waste appropriate for the worm population can be added to the bin daily or weekly. At first, feed the worms approximately 1/2 their body weight in kitchen scraps a day, maximum. That is, if you have 1 kg of worms, feed them about 1/2 kg of kitchen scraps a day. After they have established themselves, you can feed them up to their entire body weight.

Bedding is the living medium for the worms but also a food source. It is material high in carbon and made to mimic dried leaves on the forest floor, the worms' natural habitat. The bedding should be moist (often similar to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge) and loose to enable the earthworms to breathe and to facilitate aerobic decomposition.

A wide variety of bedding materials can be used including newspaper, sawdust, hay, cardboard, peat moss, pre-composted (aged) manure, and dried leaves.

Building your compost pile

Build your pile about four feet in diameter, and four feet high, on a well-drained site. A ring of hog wire with a ring of chicken wire on the outside of it works well - providing air circulation, keeping the pile contained, is easily taken apart for turning or sifting, and, it is economical and very easy to maintain. We let our piles set for a year and then sift them in the spring when we are adding compost to our garden beds. No Turning! If you want to turn your pile, let it set 3-4 months, remove the wire and set it up next to your pile. Take the pile apart, mix it, and add it to the new pile, moistening it as you go. You may do this as often as you like. This will speed up your composting process.

FIRST LAYER
on the bottom should be about three inches of roughage � corn stalks, brush, or other materials to provide air circulation.
SECOND LAYER
is two to four inches of dry vegetation � carbon-rich "brown" materials, like fall leaves, straw, dead flowers shredded newspaper, shredded alfalfa hay or dry manure. Water well.
THIRD LAYER
should be two to four inches of green vegetation � nitrogen-rich materials, like grass clippings, weeds, garden waste, vegetable peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, and crushed eggshells. Kitchen waste may be added but never use meat scraps, diseased plants, dog or cat manure, or poisonous plants. Water until moistened. (Too much water will compact your pile and reduce available oxygen.)
FOURTH LAYER
is soil taken from your garden, two inches thick. It is important to add garden soil because it contains a supply of microorganisms and nutrients, which will inoculate your compost pile. As microorganisms grow, they collect essential nutrients containing antibiotics, vitamins, and catalytic enzymes in their body tissues and release them slowly as they die and decompose.
REPEAT LAYERS
of dry vegetation, green vegetation, and garden soil � moistening each layer � until the pile is three or four feet high. To insure enough green vegetation one can plant extra garden greens, or devote one of the garden beds to the growing of compost. Good composting greens are broccoli, cauliflower, kale, comfrey (grow it in an isolated spot, and do not disturb the roots, because it can be invasive), peas, beans, and all the rest of the garden weeds and greens.
COVER THE TOP
of the pile with three to four inches of garden soil, making a ridge around the outside edge to prevent the water from running off. Use a broom handle or iron bar to make air holes from the top, deep into the pile every eight inches or so, for ventilation and water. Top off the pile with two inches of shredded alfalfa hay. Water regularly to keep moistened.

Cured Compost

Cured compost has almost all the nutrients the crops contained, and so many beneficial microbes that it is one of the best things you can do for your garden. It also contains enough humus to replenish your soil�s supply. Your compost is ready when it is dark, rich looking, broken down, crumbles in your hand and smells like clean earth. Parts of the compost pile along the outside edges that have not completely broken down will be removed when your pile is sifted and can be placed at the bottom, and between the layers of the next compost pile.

Sifting Compost

Sifting is easily done by placing a 4 x 4 foot square of ½" wire mesh over your wheelbarrow and bending the edges over the sides. Then a shovel full of compost may be placed on top of the wire mesh and rubbed. The siftings fall into the wheelbarrow and the lumps will remain on top. One side of the wire can be lifted from the wheelbarrow and these clumps will fall to the ground into a pile. When you are done, these can be shoveled into a new compost pile, and be layered accordingly.

Compost Problems

Problems can occur if conditions are unfavorable. Some of the problems are:

BAD ODORS
indicate that there is not enough air in your pile, make more air holes in your pile, or turn the pile, or start a new one.
CENTER OF PILE IS DRY
means there is not enough water in your pile. Make more air holes, and fill them with water, and the water will disperse throughout the pile.
PILE IS DAMP BUT ONLY WARM IN THE MIDDLE
indicates that your pile is too small. Increase the size of your pile to at least four feet high and four feet wide.
PILE IS DAMP AND SWEET SMELLING, BUT REMAINS COOL
indicates a lack of nitrogen,

not enough green matter or manure. Cover the pile with black plastic for a few days, but be careful not to cook all your microbes. The pile also may need more water.

Speeding up composting

To speed up the compost process and increase the decomposition rate you can add extra nitrogen, fishmeal or blood meal, to your layers. Using a metal rod to make holes in your pile will increase the amount of oxygen and stimulate aerobic activity. You can also shred your components fine, which causes faster decomposition. Compost inoculants can also be used to add nitrogen fixing, decomposing, and other soil bacteria, enzymes and hormones.

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The benefits of composting are:

  • Reduce waste sent to landfill.
  • Reduce greenhouse gases.
  • Reuse organic materials.
  • Recycle natural nutrients.
  • Improve soil without chemicals.
  • Produce rich humus for plants.
  • Save money on chemical fertilizers.

The humus you produce can be:

  • Used as a lawn dressing.
  • Dug into your garden in the fall or spring.
  • Added to houseplants.
  • Used as a potting and seed starting mix.

It adds valuable nutrients to the soil, acts as a natural slow-release fertilizer and helps retain soil moisture.

Composting is the transformation of organic material (plant matter) through decomposition into a soil-like material called compost. Invertebrates (insects and earthworms), and microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) help in transforming the material into compost. Composting is a natural form of recycling, which continually occurs in nature.

An ancient practice, composting is mentioned in the Bible several times and can be traced to Marcus Cato, a farmer and scientist who lived in Rome 2,000 years ago. Cato viewed compost as the fundamental soil enhancer, essential for maintaining fertile and productive agricultural land. He stated that all food and animal wastes should be composted before being added to the soil. By the 19th century in America, most farmers and agricultural writers knew about composting.

Today there are several different reasons why composting remains an invaluable practice. Yard and food wastes make up approximately 30% of the waste stream in the United States. Composting most of these waste streams would reduce the amount of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) requiring disposal by almost one fourth, while at the same time provide a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Compost added to gardens improves soil structure, texture, aeration, and water retention. When mixed with compost, clay soils are lightened, and sandy soils retain water better. Mixing compost with soil also contributes to erosion control, soil fertility, proper pH balance, and healthy root development in plants.

The standard means of disposal for most yard and food waste include landfilling and incineration. These practices are not as environmentally or economically sound as composting. Yard waste which is landfilled breaks down very slowly due to the lack of oxygen. As it decomposes, it produces methane gas and acidic leachate, which are both environmental problems

Landfilling organic wastes also takes up landfill space needed for other wastes. Incinerating moist organic waste is inefficient and results in poor combustion, which disrupts the energy generation of the facility and increases the pollutants that need to be removed by the pollution-control devices. Composting these wastes is a more effective and usually less expensive means of managing organic wastes. It can be done successfully on either a large or small scale, but the technique and equipment used differ.

Decomposition

Decomposition occurs naturally anywhere plants grow. When a plant dies, its remains are attacked by microorganisms and invertebrates in the soil, and it is decomposed to humus. This is how nutrients are recycled in an ecosystem. This natural decomposition can be encouraged by creating ideal conditions. The microorganisms and invertebrates fundamental to the composting process require oxygen and water to successfully decompose the material. The end products of the process are soil-enriching compost, carbon dioxide, water, and heat.

Composting is a dynamic process which will occur quickly or slowly, depending on the process used and the skill with which it is executed. A neglected pile of organic waste will inevitably decompose, but slowly. This has been referred to as "passive composting," because little maintenance is performed. Fast or "active" composting can be completed in two to six weeks. This method requires three key activities; 1) "aeration," by turning the compost pile, 2) moisture, and 3) the proper carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio. Attention to these elements will raise the temperature to around 130=-140=, and ensure rapid decomposition.

The success with which the organic substances are composted depends on the organic material and the decomposer organisms involved. Some organic materials are broken down more easily than others. Different decomposers thrive on different materials as well as at different temperature ranges. Some microbes require oxygen, and others do not; those that require oxygen are preferable for composting.

A more diverse microbial community makes for a more efficient composting process. If the environment in the compost pile becomes inhospitable to a particular type of decomposer, it will die, become dormant, or move to a different part of the compost pile. The transforming conditions of the compost pile create a continually evolving ecosystem inside the pile.

Factors Affecting The Composting Process

     All organic material will eventually decompose. The speed at which it decomposes depends on these factors: 
  1. carbon to nitrogen ratio of the material
  2. amount of surface area exposed
  3. aeration, or oxygen in the pile
  4. moisture
  5. temperatures reached in compost pile
  6. outside temperatures

Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios

Carbon and nitrogen are the two fundamental elements in composting, and their ratio (C:N) is significant. The bacteria and fungi in compost digest or "oxidize" carbon as an energy source and ingest nitrogen for protein synthesis. Carbon can be considered the "food" and nitrogen the digestive enzymes.

The bulk of the organic matter should be carbon with just enough nitrogen to aid the decomposition process. The ratio should be roughly 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen (30:1) by weight. Adding 3-4 pounds of nitrogen material for every 100 pounds of carbon should be satisfactory for efficient and rapid composting. The composting process slows if there is not enough nitrogen, and too much nitrogen may cause the generation of ammonia gas which can create unpleasant odors. Leaves are a good source of carbon; fresh grass, manures and blood meal are sources of nitrogen.


Surface Area

Decomposition by microorganisms in the compost pile takes place when the particle surfaces are in contact with air. Increasing the surface area of the material to be composted can be done by chopping, shredding, mowing, or breaking up the material. The increased surface area means that the microorganisms are able to digest more material, multiply more quickly, and generate more heat. It is not necessary to increase the surface area when composting, but doing so speeds up the process. Insects and earthworms also break down materials into smaller particles that bacteria and fungi can digest.


Aeration

The decomposition occurring in the compost pile takes up all the available oxygen. Aeration is the replacement of oxygen to the center of the compost pile where it is lacking. Efficient decomposition can only occur if sufficient oxygen is present. This is called aerobic decomposition. It can happen naturally by wind, or when air warmed by the compost process rises through the pile and causes fresh air to be drawn in from the surroundings. Composting systems or structures should incorporate adequate ventilation.

Turning the compost pile is an effective means of adding oxygen and brings newly added material into contact with microbes. It can be done with a pitchfork or a shovel, or a special tool called an "aerator," designed specifically for that purpose. If the compost pile is not aerated, it may produce an odor symptomatic of anaerobic decomposition.


Moisture

Microorganisms can only use organic molecules if they are dissolved in water, so the compost pile should have a moisture content of 40-60 percent. If the moisture content falls below 40 percent the microbial activity will slow down or become dormant. If the moisture content exceeds 60 percent, aeration is hindered, nutrients are leached out, decomposition slows, and the odor from anaerobic decomposition is emitted. The "squeeze test" is a good way to determine the moisture content of the composting materials. Squeezing a handful of material should have the moisture content of a well wrung sponge. A pile that is too wet can be turned or can be corrected by adding dry materials.


Temperature

Microorganisms generate heat as they decompose organic material. A compost pile with temperatures between 90= and 140=F (32=-60=C) is composting efficiently. Temperatures higher than 140=F (60=C) inhibit the activity of many of the most important and active organisms in the pile. Given the high temperatures required for rapid composting, the process will inevitably slow during the winter months in cold climates. Compost piles often steam in cold weather. Some microorganisms like cool temperatures and will continue the decomposition process, though at a slower pace.


Backyard vs. Large-Scale Composting

Backyard composting can be done using a variety of different systems, enclosures, or containers. Composting systems or bins can be constructed at home or purchased commercially. Depending on where you live, youmay have a problem with rodents if vegetative food wastes are combined with yard wastes. If so, an enclosed space or bin is advisable. The methods employed will vary somewhat depending on the system you choose, but the principles and purpose remain the same. This is true for large-scale composting projects as well.

Some municipalities collect yard waste at the curbside similar to the way recyclables are collected. It is taken to a central location and formed into windrows, triangular-shaped rows from 5 to 8 feet high and as long as necessary. Turning for aeration is done about once a month using a front-end loader or other type of heavy equipment made specifically for that purpose. The temperature and moisture are checked twice a week. The finished compost may be sold, given away, or used by the municipality in public works projects. Backyard composting eliminates the environmental and economic costs of the heavy equipment used to bring yard waste to a composting site and turn the windrows.

 Food Wastes: Vermicomposting and Food Digestors

Vermicomposting or worm composting is the easiest way to recycle food wastes and is ideal for people who do not have an outdoor compost pile. Composting with worms avoids the needless disposal of vegetative food wastes and enjoy the benefits of a high quality compost. It is done with "redworms" (Eisenia foetida) who are happiest at temperatures between 50= and 70= F and can be kept indoors at home, school, or the office. As with outdoor composting, it is best to avoid putting bones, meats, fish, or oily fats in the worm box as they emit odors and may attract mice and rats. When cared for properly, worms process food quickly and transform food wastes into nutrient-rich "castings." Worm castings are an excellent fertilizer additive for gardens or potted plants.

The redworms are placed in a box or bin which can be built or purchased, along with "bedding" of shredded cardboard and/or paper moistened to about 75% water content. The container should be wide enough so that food scraps can be buried in a different location each time. The dimensions of the container and the amount of worms required initially will depend on how much organic food waste will need to be composted each week.

The worms will gradually reproduce or die according to the amount of food they receive. A sudden addition of a large amount of food waste may attract fruit flies, so increases should be made gradually. In a healthy box, worms can build large populations and consume four to six pounds of food scraps per week. About four to six months after the box has been started, the worms will have converted all of the bedding and most of the food waste into "castings" which will need to be harvested so the process can begin again.

Food waste digestors are an option for people who want to reduce the amount of food waste they produce but do not have a compost pile. These units resemble commercially produced compost bins, but differ in purpose. They are designed to accept food wastes otherwise inappropriate for composting such as meats, fish, fats, or oily food scraps. In general they are built to prevent odors from being released and prevent rodents from entering the unit. Food waste digestors are fundamentally different from worm boxes and compost piles, because the digestors do not ultimately produce a soil enhancing product. Their purpose is to cut down on the volume of food waste generated. Food waste digestors are not a "magic hole in the ground" however, and the decomposed food residue must periodically be emptied into the trash.

The art of composting has been part of our global culture since ancient times. The basic principles are quite simple, and adhering to them will result in an efficient and successful outcome. Studies have shown that home composting can divert an average of 700 lbs. of material per household per year from the waste stream. Municipal composting carries a greater environmental cost, but not nearly as high as if leaf and yard waste are disposed of by conventional means. Composting is an excellent way to avoid both wasting useful, natural resources and creating environmental problems, while at the same time producing a high quality and inexpensive soil amendment.

Compost List

  • Compost all kitchen food scraps
  • Compost all cut grass and leaves and garden waste.

Vermicomposting

Compost Bins

Use of plastic garbage bags is perhaps the simplest way to make compost. The bags are easy to handle, and require minimal maintenance. To make compost using this method, 30-40 gallon plastic bags should be alternatively filled with plant wastes, fertilizer and lime. About one tablespoon of a garden fertilizer with a high nitrogen content should be used per bag. Lime (one cup per bag) helps counteract the extra acidity caused by anaerobic composting. After filling, add about a quart of water. Close tightly. Set aside for six months to a year. Bags can be set in a basement or heated garage for better decomposition during winter months. Using garbage bags requires no turning or additional water after closing. The main advantage of composting in garbage bags is that it requires little maintenance; however, because oxygen is limited, the process is slow.

The barrel or drum composter generates compost is a relatively short period of time and provides an easy mechanism for turning (Figure 1). This method requires a barrel of at least 55 gallons with a secure lid. Be sure that the barrel was not used to store toxic chemicals. Drill 6-9 rows of 1/2 inch holes over the length of the barrel to allow for air circulation and drainage of excess moisture. Place the barrel upright on blocks to allow bottom air circulation. Fill the barrel 3/4 full with organic waste material and add about 1/4 cup of high (approximately 30 %N) nitrogen containing fertilizer. Apply water until compost is moist but not soggy.

Figure 1.

Every few days, turn the drum on its side and roll it around the yard to mix and aerate the compost. The lid can be removed after turning to allow for air penetration. Ideally, the compost should be ready in two to four months. The barrel composter is an excellent choice for the city dweller with a relatively small yard.

For larger quantities of organic waste, bin type structures are the most practical. As an example, a circular bin can be made by using a length of small spaced woven wire fencing and holding it together with chain snaps (Figure 2). The bin should be about three to five feet in diameter and at least four feet high. A stake may be driven in the middle of the bin before adding material to help maintain the shape of the pile and to facilitate adding water. With this design, it is easiest to turn the composting material by simply unsnapping the wire, moving the wire cylinder a few feet, and turning the compost back into it.

Figure 2.

A very efficient and durable structure for fast composting is a three-chambered bin (Figure 3). It holds a considerable amount of compost, and allows good air circulation. The three chambered bin works on an assembly line idea, having three batches of compost in varying stages of decomposition. The compost material is started in the first bin and allowed to heat up for three to five days. Next, it is turned into the middle bin for another 4-7 days, while a new batch of material is started in the first bin. Finally, the material in the middle bin is turned into the last bin as finished or nearly finished compost.

Figure 3.

To make a three-chambered bin, it is best to use rot resistant wood such as redwood, salt treated wood or wood treated with an environmentally safe preservative or a combination of treated wood and metal posts. Unless the wood is treated or rot resistant, it will decompose within a few years. Each bin should be at least three to five feet in each dimension to contain enough volume to compost properly. Using removable slats in the front offers complete access to the contents for turning.

Decomposition of organic material in the compost pile is dependent on maintaining microbial activity. Any factor which slows or halts microbial growth will also impede the composting process. Efficient decomposition will occur if the following factors are used to fullest advantage.

Aeration

Oxygen is required for microbes to efficiently decompose the organic wastes. Some decomposition will occur in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic conditions); however, the process is slow and foul odors may develop. Because of the odor problem, composting without oxygen is not recommended in a residential setting unless the process is conducted in a fully closed system. Turning the pile once or twice a month will provide the necessary oxygen and significantly hasten the composting process. A pile that is not mixed may take three to four times longer before it can be used. A well mixed compost pile will also reach higher temperatures which will help destroy weed seeds and pathogens.

Moisture

Adequate moisture is essential for microbial activity. A dry compost pile will not decompose efficiently. If rainfall is limited, it will be necessary to water the pile periodically to maintain a steady decomposition rate. Enough water should be added to completely moisten the pile, but overwatering should be avoided. Excess water can lead to anaerobic conditions. Water the pile so that it is damp, but does not remain soggy. The compost will be within the right moisture range if a few drops of water can be squeezed from a handful of material. If no water can be squeezed out, the material is too dry. If water gushes from your hand, it is too wet.

Particle size

The smaller the size of organic wastes, the faster the compost will be ready for use. Smaller particles have much more surface area that can be attacked by microbes. A shredder can be used before putting material in the pile, and is essential if brush or sticks are to be composted. A low cost method of reducing the size of fallen tree leaves is to mow the lawn before raking or run the lawn mower over leaf piles after raking. Raked piles should be checked to insure that they do not contain sticks or rocks which could cause injury during operation of the mower. If the mower has an appropriate bag attachment, the shredded leaves can be collected directly. In addition to speeding up the composting process, shredding will initially reduce the volume of the compost pile.

Fertilizer and Lime

Microbial activity is affected by the carbon to nitrogen ratio of the organic waste. Because microbes require a certain amount of nitrogen for their own metabolism and growth, a shortage of nitrogen will slow down the composting process considerably. Materials high in carbon relative to nitrogen such as straw or sawdust will decompose very slowly unless nitrogen fertilizer is added. Tree leaves are higher in nitrogen than straw or sawdust but decomposition of leaves would still benefit from an addition of nitrogen fertilizer or components high in nitrogen. Grass clippings are generally high in nitrogen and when mixed properly with leaves will enhance decomposition. Poultry litter, manure or blood meal can be used as organic sources of nitrogen. Otherwise, a fertilizer with a high nitrogen analysis (10-30 %) should be used. Other nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium are usually present in adequate amounts for decomposition.

Location

The compost pile should be located close to where it will be used and where it will not interfere with activities in the yard or offend neighbors. From the aesthetic point of view, it is best to compost in a location screened from view of both your property and neighbor s property. Examples of good locations for the pile include: near the garden or between the garage and house. Do not locate the compost pile near a well or on a slope that drains to surface water such as a stream or a pond. The pile will do best where it is protected from drying winds and in partial sunlight to help heat the pile. The more wind and sun the pile is exposed to, the more water it will need. Locating the pile too close to trees may also create problems as roots may grow into the bottom of the pile and make turning and handling the compost difficult.

Layering

Organic wastes, such as leaves, grass, and plant trimmings are put down in a layer eight to ten inches deep. Coarser materials will decompose faster if placed in the bottom layer. This layer should be watered until moist, but not soggy. A nitrogen source should be placed on top of this layer. Use one to two inches of livestock manure, or a nitrogen fertilizer such as ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate at a rate of one third of a cup for every twenty five square feet of surface area. If these nitrogen sources are not available, one cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 25 square feet of surface area will also suffice. Do not use fertilizer that contains herbicide or pesticide.

About a one inch layer of soil or completed compost can be applied on top of the fertilizer layer. One purpose of adding soil is to ensure that the pile is inoculated with decomposing microbes. The use of soil in a compost pile should be considered optional. In most cases, organic yards wastes such as grass clippings or leaves contain enough microorganisms on the surface to effect decomposition. Studies have shown that there is no advantage in purchasing a compost starter or inoculum. One way to insure that activator microbes are present in the new compost is to mix in some old compost as the pile is prepared.

Most compost piles should initially be prepared in layers. This will facilitate decomposition by insuring proper mixing. Each pile ideally should be about 5 feet high. If only tree leaves are to be composted, layering may not be necessary. Fallen leaves can be added as they are collected. Leaves should be moistened if they are dry and since dead leaves lack adequate nitrogen for rapid decomposition, addition of a high-nitrogen fertilizer (10-30 % analysis) should be added to speed up breakdown. Approximately 5 ounces (about 1/2 cup) of 10% nitrogen fertilizer should be added for each 20 gallons of hand compressed leaves.

To prevent odors and hasten decomposition, the pile must be turned occasionally. Turning also exposes seeds, insect larvae, and pathogens to lethal temperatures inside the pile. Odors may arise either from the addition of excessive amounts of wet plant materials like fruits or grass clippings, or from overwatering. A properly mixed and adequately turned compost heap will not have objectionable odors. An actively decomposing pile will reach temperatures of 130-160 0F in the middle.

Reasons for the pile not heating up may be due to: too small a pile, not enough nitrogen, lack of oxygen, too much or not enough moisture. The pile should be turned when the temperature in the center begins to cool. This will introduce oxygen and undecomposed material into the center and subsequently regenerate heating. The composting process is essentially complete when mixing no longer produces heat in the pile.

Generally, a well managed compost pile with shredded material under warm conditions will be ready in about 2-4 months. A pile left unattended and material not shredded may take over a year to decompose. Piles prepared in the late fall will not be ready for use the following spring. When the compost is finished, the pile will be about half its original size and have an earthy smell to it.

The Five Key Factors

To make an effective efficient compost pile, you need to consider these five key factors:

  • Food: The Fifty-Fifty Rule: A perfect mixture of material consists of Ã�½ brown (carbon-based material) and Ã�½ green (nitrogen-based) material by weight.
  • Air: To Turn or Not to Turn: The organisms that live inside your compost bin need air to survive. Mix or turn the pile three to five times per season using a pitchfork, garden hoe or shovel. Proper aeration can make a big difference. You will know if your bin is not getting enough oxygen if the pile smells of ammonia.
  • Water: Moist, Not Damp: The organisms need water to survive, but not too much or they will drown. The ideal moisture level of your compost pile should be like that of a wrung out sponge.
  • Surface Area: Small is Best: Cutup or shred organic waste materials before placing them into the compost bin. This increases the surface area and speeds up decomposition. You can also store your kitchen scraps in your freezer to speed up decomposition, as your materials break down at the cell level when frozen.
  • Bin Volume: Not Too Big: A bin should be between 3� x 3� x �3 and 5�x 5� x 5�. A bin that is too small cannot retain enough heat. If the bin is too large, it won�t get enough air to the centre of the pile. It is also easier to manage two or three medium bins that one large one. You can build a compost bin yourself out of new or recycled materials, or you can buy one at a home or garden centre.

Building a Newspaper Compost Bin

Assemble newspaper, heavy string, small, fairly straight sticks and compostable materials (A).

Cut several small matching holes along the edge of several thicknesses of newspaper. If you fold the edge and cut a >, it will form a diamond as pictured (B). Add a few holes scattered throughout the face of the paper to provide aeration. Don't make too many aeration holes.

Lay the newspaper down with ends overlapping and diamond cuts matching. Weave a stick in and out through the diamond cuts to hold the newspaper together (C).

When you have enough sheets to form the diameter you want, overlap the two ends and weave them together. Three sheets should be a manageable size, but it can be bigger if you like. You will wind up with a cylinder of newspaper (D).

Fill the cylinder with compostable materials like leaves and grass clippings. Tie a few bands of stout biodegradable string around the bin during the filling to provide extra support (E).

You will end up with a bale covered on the outside with newspaper. You can even remove the support sticks once the bale is made and use them over and over if you have done a good job of tying the string.

The Baffled Compost Bin

The Baffled Compost BinA moderately priced compost bin that is very efficient A moderately priced compost bin that is very efficient is the baffled bin. It works so well because of moisture, humidity, and air control. Hot dry wind can dry out any material it comes in direct contact with. The baffles (see illustration) prevent hot dry air from coming in direct contact with the composting materials. As the air is drawn into the bin it swirls around and slowly picks up moisture before being drawn into the interior of the pile where composting is taking place. Having moisture laden air drawn into the center of the pile is very beneficial because compost piles dry out from the inside out. The moisture laden air also stimulates many microorganisms because they can draw their moisture from the air. The baffles provide excellent control of large vermin like rats and mice and if screen is used to cover the openings there is excellent insect control. The baffled bin will compost as efficiently as any high priced system and is very attractive if built with quality materials.

Construct five baffled panels for your bin. This will give you four sides and a top. A top is very important on a baffled bin to moderate the air flow. Construction is similar to the pallet bin. In fact, pallets can be turned into baffled panels by nailing boards and spacers onto them. For ease in turning the pile or getting at the finished compost, have one side open out or detach. The top panel can either be hinged so it can be raised or just rest on the top edges of the four sides.

Building A Pallet Bin

Assemble four wooden pallets, six fence posts, some boards, nails, and wire.

Try to get pallets the same size as it will make construction easier, but they don't have to be exactly the same size. You can join the pallets together using six steel fence posts, some 1" x 4" boards, galvanized wire or coated heavy copper wire, or galvanized nails. But be creative. If you have materials at hand like untreated wooden posts or nylon rope instead of wire, use them.

Choose the largest of your pallets to be the roof and measure it's length and width. This will be the maximum outside dimension of the walls of your compost bin. Draw a square or rectangle that size on the ground where you will be placing your bin. Next measure the other three pallets and lay out a C-shaped design smaller than the roof (see top view).

Drive two fence posts for each wall spaced about a foot from each end. Drive them in so the top of the fence post is lower than the top edge of the pallet. This will keep them from sticking up over the top edges of the sides and interfering with the roof. Wire or tie the pallets to the posts.

The pallet you have chosen for the roof needs to be modified for maximum effectiveness. What you want is a roof that doesn't leak too badly. Use the 1" x 4" boards to cover the open spaces between the boards that make up the top surface of the pallet (see the roof).

Then put the roof on and wire it to the pallets used for the walls. Some kind of front door would improve effectiveness, even one as simple as a heavy canvas flap with a board stapled to the bottom. Or purchase five pallets instead of four and wire or tie the fifth to the front as a door.

Resources

Just a Pile in the Corner

I have had a compost heap for 5 years now, and I have used nothing fancier than a shovel to turn it over. When we moved into our place, there was already a pile of dirt and yard debris in the corner by the garage. We just added to it. Whenever we weeded, mowed the lawn, had vegetable scraps from the kitchen, or raked leaves, we threw it all on the pile. About once a summer, my husband would turn the whole thing over. In the spring, I just dig out from the bottom of the pile, and keep throwing more new stuff on the top. I have always had enough compost for my whole garden, and the pile is home to hundreds of earthworms, which also get spread around the garden to improve the soil. There is really nothing more to it! Bridget S. Simple Pallet Design

My husband made a very effective and inexpensive composting bin out of wooden pallets. He stood them on end--one per side--and he used wire to fasten them together. The wire holding them together made it possible to remove the front of the bin so he could stir it or remove what was needed. The pallets allowed the proper air circulation also. Susan W. in SugarLand, TX Take It's Temperature

You can start with a can, bag or what have you - in your kitchen by collecting all the table scraps, egg shells, trimmings and/or whatever (just nothing that came from an animal that eats meat - i.e. pet wastes, human wastes).

Outside, you can simply have a chicken wire contraption to a wooden box that you construct on your own - purchase plans and supplies or purchase a prefabricated kit that you put together...Whatever fits your time, your budget and your lifestyle.

You also would want a good shovel, thermometer and gardening gloves so that you can check the inner temperature of the composting pile. It should get pretty close to 160 degrees F as it decomposes. Once it starts to decline, start taking the stuff on the outside of your mound and throw it onto the center top. After a few days, it should have gone through it's cycle of ~160 F. Once the pile no longer can reach those temperatures, but stays at a moderate temp. then it's ready to be used.

This process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months depending on your involvement in it. This method is perfect for balancing the pH levels as well as killing all your weed seeds and a wonderful recycling method. Joyce in MA Basic Chemistry

What you really need to know is that a compost pile is made up of 2 basic ingredients - carbon and nitrogen. Anything dry supplies carbon (fallen leaves, sticks, dead plants). Anything that's still green when you put it in the pile supplies nitrogen (grass clippings, weeds, etc.) Carbon takes a long time to break down. Nitrogen breaks down really fast (which is why a pile of grass clippings smells so bad!). Ideally you should have a mix. People will tell you to layer it, but I just throw it on the pile as I have it.

You need to toss on a shovel full of dirt every now and again to supply the bacteria needed to break down the compost, and you need to keep it moist (about the consistency of a wrung out sponge, not sopping wet). It will break down faster if you go out there with a fork every now and again and turn it over. If your pile ends up being mostly carbon (usually in the fall, when all you have are dead leaves), fill your hose end sprayer to the top with plain old household ammonia and spray it every time you add a layer of leaves to the pile (ammonia supplies a lot of nitrogen).

It's also nice, but not absolutely necessary, to shred everything before adding to the pile (run your lawnmower over it) because smaller pieces break down faster. And if you live in a cold winter area and your leaves aren't completely composted by spring, use them as mulch around your plants and dig them in later. Cindy in Newbury, OH Direct to Garden

I recently started composting my scraps directly into my garden. About once or twice a week I chop my scrapps into fine cubes. I then bury them directly into my garden in various places. While I would love to take credit for this idea, I read about it in some gardening book or magazine a few months ago. Bonnie H. A Simple Circle

The easiest way to compost is to purchase some cheap wire fencing-anything that is sturdy enough to stand up in a circle by itself about four feet tall will do. Attach the fence to itself to form that circle. Put it in a place in the yard convenient to you, the house (for household composting such as veggies, etc.) and make sure it gets at least several hours of direct sun each day. Evan

Five Easy Compost Steps

1. Make the pile big. To build up the necessary amount of heat (160 degrees) in the pile, start the pile full, in bins, at least 36" x 36" x 36". Use two or more covered bins with removable slats in the front to ease the turning process.

2. Mix in equal volumes. Use a 50-50 mix of green plant material (dried grass clippings, old flowers, green prunings, weeds, fruit and vegetable wastes) and dried plant material (dead leaves, straw, cut-up twigs and branches, finely shredded newspapers, paper bags and cardboard boxes). DO NOT ADD: fireplace ashes, manure from meat-eating animals or soil.

3. Keep the ingredients small. Chop, cut or grind material for the pile down to between one-half inch and one-and-a-half inches in size.

4. Keep the pile moist, but not soggy. If it's too wet, it will smell; if it's too dry, decomposition will be very slow. An ammonia odor may also indicate that there's an imbalanced mix of ingredients. In that case, add sawdust at the site of the odor. If, despite adequate moisture, decomposition is still moving along too slowly (not reaching high temperatures within 48 hours), add grass clippings or fresh chicken manure. A pleasant odor and the emission of heat indicate a properly working, rapidily composting pile of organic matter.

5. Turn the pile. Turn the inside of the pile to the outside on a daily basis (for usable compost in two weeks) or every other day (for compost in three weeks).

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