All About Composting

July 2, 2010 at 10:50 PM Leave a comment

All About Composting

Making compost is the most satisfying way to recycle your yard debris and improve your soil.

Picket Fence Surrounding Dooryard

Compost is a key ingredient
in a lush, easy-to-maintain
garden.

Composting Basics

It’s easy to cook up your own compost. Just layer organic materials — garden clippings, dry leaves, kitchen vegetable scraps, shredded paper — and a dash of dirt to create a concoction that turns into humus, the best soil builder around.

Before you start piling on, recognize that there are two types of composting: cold and hot. Cold composting is as simple as collecting your yard waste or taking out the organic materials in your trash (such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and egg shells) and then corralling them in a pile or bin. Over the course of a year or so, the material will decompose.

Hot composting is for the more serious gardener and you get compost in one to three months during warm weather. Four ingredients are required for fast-cooking hot compost: fresh “green” plant material, dry “brown” plant material, air, and water. Together, these items feed microorganisms, which speed up the process of decay.

To create your own organic hot-compost heap, wait until you have enough material to make a pile at least 3 feet deep. Then, to ensure an even composition, create alternating 4- to 8-inch layers of green and brown materials. Green materials consist of vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and plant trimmings. Brown materials include dried leaves and shredded newspaper. Sprinkle water over the pile regularly so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. Don’t add too much water or the microorganisms will become waterlogged and won’t heat the pile properly. You can check the temperature of the pile with a thermometer or simply reach into the middle of the pile with your hand.

During the growing season, you should provide the pile with oxygen by turning it once a week with a garden fork. The best time to turn the compost is when the center of the pile feels warm or the thermometer reads between 130 and 150 degrees. Stirring up the pile helps it cook faster and prevents material from becoming matted down and developing a bad odor. At this point, the layers have served their purpose of creating equal amounts of green and brown materials throughout the pile, so stir thoroughly.

When the compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry, brown, and crumbly, it’s fully cooked and ready to feed to the garden.

Good Greens for Your Compost
  • Fruit scraps
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Grass and plant clippings
Good Browns for Your Compost
  • Dry leaves
  • Finely chopped wood and bark chips
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Straw
  • Sawdust from untreated wood
Bad for Your Compost
  • Anything containing meat, oil, fat, grease
  • Diseased plant materials
  • Sawdust or chips from pressure-treated wood
  • Dog or cat feces
  • Weeds that go to seed
  • Dairy products

A simple wire-fence bin makes
an inexpensive compost corral.

Composting Containers

A Simple Bin

A bin helps contain your compost pile and makes it more attractive. While you can buy a commercial plastic container from a garden center, it’s easy to build your own. A simple circular or square structure can be made from fencing wire. The bin should be at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep to provide enough space for materials to heat up. Use untreated wood or metal fence posts for the corners and wrap wire fencing around them. The fence mesh should be small enough that materials won’t fall out. When the compost is ready, unwind the wire and scoop the compost from the bottom of the pile. Then re-pile the not-yet-decomposed materials and wrap the wire back around the heap.

Top-loading, bottom-unloading bin.

Top-loading, bottom-unloading bin.
Permanent Bins

More permanent bins can be constructed of wood or masonry blocks. Here, boards are added to the bin’s front as the pile grows taller.

Triple bin - composting

Triple bin.
Compost Condo

While one compost pile is good, many hard-core gardeners feel three is better. By building a trio of bins, you can compost in stages: one bin will be ready, one will be brewing, and one will just be starting. A triple bin is best for a more active composting system. Turn the pile into the next bin when it reaches peak internal heat.

Tumbler-style composter.

Tumbler-style composter.
Compost Tumblers

Tumbler-style composters come in several configurations. The most common are the horizontal drums that are mounted on wheels or axles to allow mixing of materials.

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Entry filed under: Green Information.

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