Benefits of Composting-the Simple Way

The basics of compost life.

Plants, animals, insects, and people are all interconnected in a complex biological web. And most of that life happens too small for the eye to see. Air, water, soil, and minerals all play vital roles. Compost is the naturally occurring process that is happening right below our feet and right in front of our eyes. It is the continuity, the cycle of life. When we speak of gardening organically, it really means that we are focussing on accelerating the organic processes that nature uses, but we do them in optimal proportions.

Gardening without understanding how to use this fascinating process to our benefit is like trying to operate a vehicle with gasoline that has water in the fuel tank. You will get to a few places for a while, but soon, your car will run out of fuel and the wheels will stop turning. Or, it will continue to grow, but it will sputter and have limited power. Somewhat similarly, if we are gardening without refueling the soil with the abundance of life, moisture, air, and minerals, you may be able to still plant, but the garden will just not “go.” The engine of life sputters.

Compost in your garden is an intentional, accelerated replication of the natural processes of birth and death that occurs almost everywhere in nature. However, if we give nature the exact amounts of fuel, air, and moisture, this process flies into action and it is possible to take raw materials and turn them into compost within 14 days. It happens without odor. However, if things are not in perfect balance the compost pile will let you know. You will smell the rotten odors, and the compost will become a gooey mass of slime. Or, it will sit there and slowly, slowly break down over two years.

Fixing the Biggest Compost Hurdle

The most important factor (besides having correct materials) to composting is keeping adequate air in the compost pile. Period. Let me say it differently. If you want to have good compost quickly, turn the pile. This is the biggest compost hurdle. It’s heavy. It’s work. It takes time. No one wants to do it. But if you don’t turn the pile or have some method give the process oxygen and put our little microbe friends easily in contact with lots of food, we have to turn the pile. Regularly. Often.

Get a compost tumbler. If you want compost, get a compost tumbler. Make one. Buy one. Just do it. It will last for years with only minor repairs, but it will be the difference between a 14-week batch of compost and a 2-year smelly, slimy pile.

homemade compost tumbler

Make a Compost Tumbler?

You can make one that will do an adequate job out of a 55-gallon plastic drum. Make sure the drum had food materials or is new. You wouldn’t want to use one that had toxic chemicals. When I finish the video of making my own compost tumbler, I’ll post a link.

Buy a Compost Tumbler?

There are several companies that make good compost tumblers. They will range from $150 to more than $500. But, they will be easy to use. They will help your plants produce with much more abundance. And they will significantly reduce your costs of fertilizer, commercial compost, and even water. It is not an expense. It is a garden and grocery investment.

Ten Tips to Making Compost Right—Quickly and Organically

1) Microorganisms are the key to composting.

For easy categorization, I’ll call them the big guys and the little guys. The big guys include the bugs you see: mites, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, snails and slugs, spiders, springtails, beetles, ants, flies, nematodes, flatworms, and earthworms. These “big” creatures consume the leaves, grass, cardboard, and all the materials that you will heap together into the same pile. They live in the soil and eat organic matter. Feed them all sorts of organic material such as leaves, grass, banana peels, old apples, old vegetable matter, leaves, and weeds.

The little guys are microscopic. Bacteria (who do most of the work), Actinomycetes (responsible for the “earthy” smell), Protozoa, and Fungi. By far the most important decomposer are the bacteria. They specialize in breaking down the organic compounds. All of these work together that changes the chemistry of the organic materials. This is important to understand.

This is important to understand. You put together piles of “stuff,” including things we don’t really want to put our hands in, you might say. When the big guys and little guys are done, it is not longer a pile of dangerous or even toxic materials. It is compost, earthy, brown “soil” rich in nutrients that have been synthesized by our tiny little friends.

Without these friends doing this work, the earth would be yucky, smelly, and dead. Three cheers for these microorganisms!

2) Microorganisms also depend on carbon and nitrogen.

A lot of books and materials talk about having the right carbon/nitrogen ratio. I’ll mention it too, but the easiest way to differentiate between the two is what Jane Jensen in her 4-disc LivingGardenSeries DVD gardening set calls the greens and browns. In general, greens are high in nitrogen; browns are high in carbons.

The ideal C/N ratio is between 25:1 to 30:1. That means you need much more carbon than nitrogen.

High carbon material that you can add to your composting includes plain paper, untreated sawdust and wood chips, straw, and dried leaves, peanut shells, dried potato vines. You can see by the ratio that you need a lot of carbon to a small percentage of nitrogen. I’ve listed only a few items, but just about anything plant-based that has been alive can be used. Rodale Book of Composting includes many pages of different types of materials, their C/N ratios, their NPK percentages. If you intend to make more than a few cubic feet a year, I would encourage you to get that book. You do want to have a well-balanced compost, and the only way to have it well balanced is to provide a wide assortment of materials.

However, by watching and turning your pile regularly, you can tell if the process is working well. Follow the remaining tips below.

3) Compost from the kitchen without the smell.

Place a small composting pail in your kitchen to help you remember to throw those scraps into your composting bin. The best way to begin the composting process before it ever goes into the compost pile is to use a bucket with a tight-fitting lid. Each time you add kitchen garbage, cover it with a layer of sawdust or peat moss. This will absorb the moisture and the odors. When you empty the kitchen bucket into the compost pile, don’t just throw it on top. Spread it and turn it in. Again, a rotating composter saves a LOT of effort.

When you empty the kitchen bucket into the compost pile, don’t just throw it on top. Spread it and turn it in. Again, a rotating composter saves a LOT of effort. Also, adding absorbent materials such as dead leaves or straw to offset the wetness is important to keep the moisture level balanced.

You should chop or shred any large pieces of matter, such as potatoes, fruit rinds, eggshells, etc.

You don’t want to include greasy materials or meat-based materials, however.  Meat-based products will break down, but it takes much longer, and they are also the most attractive to rodents and scavengers.

4) Your compost needs air.

It will not give you the right results without air. Turning the pile regularly is the surest way to get air into your pile. And the easiest way to turn the pile is to put it in a revolving bin. I already emphasized the advantage of buying or building a rotating compost bin.

If you are using a composting bin or another container, you should have holes in it to allow air inside. It is also a good idea to stir your compost every few days so rotate the matter. Daily is not too frequent.

The single best way to know that you either have too little air or too much nitrogen is the smell. Without air, the microorganisms in your composting will die and that will lead to rotten odors from your composting pile. Without air, the microorganisms in your composting will die and that will lead to rotten odors from your composting pile.

If you are beginning to get foul odors from the compost bin, then the levels are wrong. Either you need more air or you need more carbon (or less nitrogen).

5) Your compost pile needs the right amount of water.

Not too much, and not too little either. Your compost should feel a bit like a wet sponge when you squeeze it in your hands, but it should not be drippy. If you have too much moisture, your pile will become smelly. What is happening is the moisture drives out the air. The pile drowns itself. The temperature will drop.

Every time you turn the compost, check the moisture level and the temperature level. If you have a closed container, you will need to be responsible for adding water when it is dry. It won’t get water from rain.

6) The temperature of your compost pile is important.

The temperature of the pile is the best indicator of the composting activity. The time needed for a quick compost to be ready to use is generally less than 8 weeks and may be as little as 2. This is accomplished by keeping the pile highly aerated. That means turning the pile. The more air that is available, the hotter the pile will get.

Some people just put their arm into the pile. I don’t like to do that personally. I prefer to use a thermometer.

If it is too cold, it will not do well. The temperature of your compost pile should be between 113- and 158 degrees. Keeping compost at temperatures above 140 degrees for two weeks will kill weed seeds. That is one of the important purposes of making compost. When the compost is getting finished, you will be able to tell by the texture, but you will know that it is finished when the temperature begins to drop

When the compost is getting finished, you will be able to tell by the texture, but you will know that it is finished when the temperature begins to drop

7) Using a large compost pile is better.

If you are going to compost, it is almost always better to use a large pile instead of a small one. This will ensure that the entire pile can maintain a good temperature year-round. Without using a tumble, you should try to build piles 4′ x 4′ x 4′. Building compost bins with sides helps to keep the compost in manageable piles. I’m sure you can numerous compost bin plans on the internet and especially on youtube. Just remember two things: there has to be enough volume to insulate from the outside temperature and moisture. But the bigger the pile the more difficult it is to turn.

If you are using an enclosed container such as a barrel, you may be able to get away with a smaller pile. But if you can’t get the temperature high enough, even with the correct ratio of materials and moisture, then you may need more material.

8) Use small pieces of organic matter for the best results.

It is never advisable to throw in large pieces of organic matter. The smaller the particles, the easier it will be for the “big guys” to chew up the materials. Large pieces will make it very difficult for the composting process to work efficiently. It will slow down the entire process. In addition, chopping or shredding the material before adding will ensure an even distribution.

Again, turning the pile is vital to distributing the helpful composting creatures throughout the pile. It gives them oxygen and space to move around. Using a compost tumbler is very easy way to turn compost regularly.

9) Give your compost time.

You can expect your compost pile to take any amount of time with many factors taken into consideration. You can do this in as little as two weeks if you have adequate material, balanced ratios, and adequate moisture. Don’t rush it, just turn it. When it looks like chocolate cake, smells wonderfully earthy like a forest, and the temperature has subsided, your compost is ready.

Spreading compost.

Spread finished compost in your flowerbeds, in your potted plants and around your trees and shrubs to help them get the nutrients and trace minerals they need to survive.

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