Composting Revisted

I am convinced that if we as a society would recycle and compost the items we throw away like our kitchen scraps, yard clippings, leaves etc. we would reduce our need for landfills in half.  We try to recycle everything possible, we don’t do composting that much, I send my grass and leaves to the city’s compost and most of our kitchen scraps goes down the disposal unit.   Only our spent garden plants find their way to the compost pile. This practice will not suffice when we move away from these city and urban conveniences. With no curb side pickup for the yard debris and inability to use a disposal unit, we decided to try and see what is needed to truly compost our waste, and not just the garden plants. 

Basically composting is the process of organic material decomposing into an awesome material that can be used in the garden or flower beds. Everything growing can benefit from compost because the nutrients that are contained within.  It also improves the soil by giving it the capacity to hold more water and nutrients and increases the soil’s aeration.

Starting materials

Fresh CompostMany items can be put into your compost pile, 

  1. Your Kitchen Scraps: Vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, even your used coffee.  It is advised not to use animal products, grease, fat or meat since they tend to break down very slowly and attract rodents and other pests.
  2. Yard trimmings: Grass clippings can make great compost, mix green, fresh cuttings with soil or dry plant material such as leaves to keep the grass from compacting.  We want air to flow around to help speed ups the composting process.
  3. Leaves: Most leaves decompose faster and more thoroughly when shredded before they are added to the pile.
  4. Manure: My favorite…. Chicken, cow and horse manures are great nitrogen sources… Do not use your pets fecal matter, they can carry disease organisms
  5. Sawdust: Compost this before adding it to the garden, it can tie up the nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes, you can add some extra nitrogen to the sawdust to speed its breakdown
  6. Other items: Hay, shredded newspapers, and hedge clippings are also good to add to your growing pile

Building the Pile

There are many type of composting bins on the market, but you can easily make one with wire fencing, cinder blocks and scrap lumber.  If you have enough space you can leave the compost free standing also.  If you go with the enclosed design make sure you leave an opening to allow for turning.  When finding a location for the pile you should take these into account:

  • Keep it close to your garden
  • Locate it in a secluded area
  • Avoid direct sunlight – do not want it to dry out too fast
  • Needs to be in a well drained area, no standing water

Compost DiagramYour pile should be made up in layers. The first layer should be coarse plant materials, to allow oxygen to circulate through out the pile. The second layer should be 6 to 10 inches of finer plant material such as leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps. The third layer should be a 1 inch layer of soil or manure, which provides microorganisms and nitrogen. The microorganisms are what actually break down the plant material. To do this they need food in the form of nitrogen. If you use soil for this layer, add 1⁄3 cup nitrogen for every 25 square feet of compost pile surface area. Repeat the second and third layers until the pile is 5 feet tall after settling. A compost pile needs to be of adequate size, usually 4 square feet, to provide a stable environment for the microorganisms. If a compost pile is much smaller than 3 feet in diameter, it will decompose much more slowly.

What is required for Composting

Organic material, microorganisms, air, water and nitrogen are all essential elements that need to be present for decomposition to occur. Organic material comprises all the items previously listed: kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, etc. The size of the materials in the compost pile can influence the amount of time it takes for it to break down. The smaller the item, the faster microorganisms can break it down. Microorganisms need a favorable environment, which includes air, water, and nitrogen.  Air is the only part that cannot be added in excess. Turning the pile often will provide an ample amount of air and speed the composting process. If there is too little air in a compost pile because of compaction, anaerobic decomposition occurs, producing a foul odor. The pile can have too much water, so the pile location should have good drainage. During the summer, you may need to add water so that the compost pile does not dry out.   It should be moist but not soggy. The type of organic materials  influences how fast microorganisms break them down. As the microorganisms begin to break down the organic material, heat will be generated. Within a few days the compost pile should reach an internal temperature of 90 to 160 degrees F. This will destroy most weed seeds, insect eggs, and disease organisms, producing rich compost.  Turn the pile weekly during the summer and monthly during the winter to increase the rate of decomposition. About 90 to 120 days are required to prepare good compost using the layer method.

Now you should be ready for the next season with fresh compost, and you’ll know what it was comprised of.

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