Compost is often called Gardener’s Gold, and rightly so. To a smart gardener, good compost is worth its weight in vegetables and then some. Let’s learn more about home composting!
What is Compost?
Compost is what you get when yard and garden debris, kitchen scraps, grass clippings and other organic materials have completely broken down into a rich, dark, crumbly material.
Gardeners love compost because it is so rich in nutrients and adds so much value when you add it to your soil. Composting is really just nature’s natural process of breaking down dead plant material and turning it back into soil. With this comes a lot of organic matter, which boosts the soil’s ability to grow more plants. When a gardener composts, he or she is just speeding up the natural process through the knowledgeable manipulation of the factors that go into the breaking down of dead plant material.
The factors that break down these materials into compost are: heat, nutrient mix, oxygen, and moisture. Heat is created by the bacteria and microbes as they break down the plant matter. The nutrient mix determines how active and healthy those microbes will be and how much they’ll have to “eat” while the oxygen level will determine how many microbes there will be. Finally, the moisture content will affect all of these things. All four elements working together create a micro-ecosystem that the gardener is attempting to optimize.
The main ingredients, or nutrients, a gardener is adding to the compost heap are carbon and nitrogen (C or N). Most agree that the optimum mixture is 25-30:1 carbon to nitrogen. So for every twenty-five or thirty pounds of carbon, you should be adding a pound of nitrogen. This is easily measured by the type of material you’re using. Some are a roughly even mix, such as grass clippings and sod, while others are weighted in either C or N’s direction. Shredded newspaper is mostly carbon, as are feathers and leaves. Dry manure and urine are heavy with nitrogen, as are coffee grounds.
Carbon rich materials are also known as “brown materials” and nitrogen rich materials are known as “green materials.” Too much brown, carbon rich material slows down the composting process significantly, because the nitrogen rich green materials are necessary to speed things up. Too much green though, and you get a stinky, wet mess.
You’ll want to add all the different types of organic material you can find. Fruit and vegetable waste from your kitchen are not scraps you should throw out, but something to add to your compost pile or bin. Even your coffee grounds, grass clippings and most food waste. Soon it will be finished compost, ready for use in the lawn or garden. Compost is the best soil amendment you can use to radically improve the fertility and health of your soil. Composting your yard waste turns the organic matter into a valuable soil amendment that you’d otherwise have to pay for.
Types of Composting
Compost Bins and Piles
Compost bins and piles are the two most popular ways of composting. They are roughly the same idea, though bins can definitely be a time-saver when composting, while piles can be almost unlimited in size. Both use the same principle of adding material to the compost “heap” (be it in a bin or a pile) and stirring it occasionally to keep it distributing so the central core of the compost heats up and does its composting magic.
Most compost bins or tumblers are built to have the compost contained and then stirred by either turning it over with a pitch fork or by turning the bin itself. Compost piles, similarly, are usually contained in some kind of enclosure, though they can be just heaped into a pile. These are also stirred, usually with a pitchfork. The stirring mixes the air, adding oxygen into the mix, and moves the processed material out and fresh carbon and nitrogen into the center. The middle of a compost pile can be 135-150 degrees Fahrenheit!
The hot process is a batch process that differs from the compost bin or compost pile methods in that it creates one big batch of compost (rather than a continuous trick of usable soil, as with other methods). This method requires more up-front work and planning, but is used by gardeners who want a large batch of compost at a specific time, say spring or fall, in order to prepare bare soil or rebuild a garden. While most home composting often done in bins or large containers, it can also be done in piles.
Hot composting is a good way to break down the materials like fruit and vegetable scraps or other food scraps faster so they won’t attract pests. It’s the fastest way to turn your waste and scraps into soil.
You’ll keep a stockpile of compost ingredients such as piles or bags of leaves, straw, grass clippings and other yard waste, along with food scraps, etc. The hot process usually yields good compost in 2-3 weeks’ time (versus a whole season for piles and bins). Many gardeners have two or three bins they’re composting with in rotation, using the hot process with one bin while stockpiling in another, getting fresh compost weekly.
Layer composting is popular and is often used with the square, stationary bins sold in garden shops and stores. The home owner adds scraps and cuttings to the top of the bin and it slowly breaks them down, in layers, with fresh compost dirt coming out the bottom on a more or less continuous basis. These are the least labor-intensive of the composting methods, but are really only suitable for small-scale gardens (such as herb gardens, pot or bucket gardens, etc.) rather than for family-sized garden plots.
What Not to Compost
Anything organic can be composted. With that in mind, however, there are many things that are not well-suited to the home gardener’s compost bin or heap. Generally, waste from carnivores and omnivores (dogs, cats, humans, pigs) are not a good idea in a compost heap for health reasons. Most meats and meat-based fats should likewise not be composted.
With home composting, very thick and heavy waste matter (wood chips, cardboard, office paper, etc.) is also not a good idea in a compost heap unless you plan to allow a lot of time (possibly years) for it to break down into soil through the decomposition process.
What is the Best Method of Composting?
The best method is really the method that’s most convenient for you. Although you can make finished compost faster with hot methods, it takes more work to carefully mix the write ratio of carbon and nitrogen rich materials, and making sure there’s enough water and moisture for optimal break down. Most people don’t want to go to all this trouble.
The most convenient method is to simply buy a bin and add all your materials to it. Over time, everything breaks down. If you look inside and everything is wet and slimy or stinky, then you need more brown materials to balance it out. If it’s just a dry pile of brown things, then you need more nitrogen rich materials like vegetable scraps and fresh green grass clippings to heat it up. That’s all there is to it!