Compost Happens

Sep 14th, 2014 | By | Category: blog, gardening tips, Grow Something, spring, summer
Compost Bin Courtesy of Rachel Tayse

Compost Bin Courtesy of Rachel Tayse

They say compost happens. And they are right. Without any help from humans, trees and shrubs follow Nature’s cues of shortened days and cooler temperatures; one-by-one they drop their leaves onto the soil’s surface over a brief period of time.

On the ground leaves that once allowed their owners to convert sunlight into chemical forms of energy for nutrition, fraternize with earthworms, insects, and microbes to slowly transform into rich, fertile humus that serves to nourish the plants all over again.

Although we humans are part of the natural world, we don’t always see eye-to-eye with Nature. The thought of allowing leaves and grass clipping as well as other assorted organic matter to commingle and decompose on our lawns in plain view of the neighbors is enough to give us the heebie-jeebies.

So we rake and pile and bag the leaves and set them on the curb for our designated brush pick up day.

You can easily recreate in your backyard what nature does, well, naturally. By collecting a sufficient volume of organic matter, mixing it together in the proper ratios, and maintaining ample aeration and hydration, you will end up with humus. And humus is absolutely essential to the health of plants and people. It provides nutrition to plant life and plants provide us with, well, everything.

Location…Location…Location

The location of your compost pile is the first decision you must make. If you plan on building a free-ranging pile, or even one that’s in an open wire cage, situate it in a well drained site that’s away from heavily trafficked areas of the yard, but not so far and out of the way that you need a GPS unit to locate it each time. The site should also be partly sunny, not too windy (or the compost will dry out) and accessible to a water source.

Composter, Cage or Free Range

Who knew there were so many decisions involved to make dirt? If you choose to use one of the many enclosed composters available today, location becomes more a matter of aesthetics than necessity. Enclosed composters are designed to be simple. Just toss in your materials, and depending on the configuration of the device, give it a few turns, rolls, stirs, and before long you’ll have “brown gold” for use around your yard and garden.

Many people choose to cage their compost and use large wire cylinders, or wooden pallets wired together, to keep things tidy. Then there are others who like free range compost and let it live unrestrained in an area of the yard. It’s easier to turn these piles in the wild, because you can really get up into them and give them a good turn from the side, verses the top when its confined.

Garbage into Gold

Once you’ve decided on a location and method, it’s time to start collecting materials. A very basic “recipe” involves two parts carbon to one part nitrogen. Another way to think about it is two parts brown and crunchy to one part green and wet. The brown and crunchy includes your fallen leaves and the green and wet includes grass clippings, weeds, and all kitchen scraps except meat and oily items. You may also add livestock manure to the mix, but not pet poop.

Using pet poop in compost can be a crap shoot – no pun intended. Their droppings harbor pernicious parasites that may cause problems for you if the compost containing this matter is not completely rotted before use. In any event always wear gloves when working with compost, and if there are pet leavings in the mix, it’s probably best to use the compost around ornamentals and not edibles.

You may layer your compost materials in an orderly fashion, or toss them into the pile willy-nilly. I opt for the latter since the pile will eventually become discombobulated the first time you turn it. Turning the pile brings oxygen into the mix, which speeds along decomposition. Once you’ve combined the compost materials, it’s time to hose them down.

Wet and Wild (but not too wet)

Water is an integral ingredient and step when it comes to making compost. Moisture encourages decomposition by helping the pile to “cook”. Too little moisture and the pile sits there like a big garbage heap. Too much water, and it transforms into a smelly slimy mess. What’s the right amount of water for your compost pile? This is something you will have to work out through trial and error because the composition of your compost pile, and the conditions in your are different than mine; this is not an exact science. Just know that if it is too dry, add more water. Or if it is becoming a festering pile of goo, stop watering, add more dry ingredients, and mix thoroughly.

Size Matters

The eventual size of your caged or free range compost pile should at least three feet high by three feet wide. Bigger is better but can become harder to manage. A large volume of materials is necessary to generate adequate heat to break down the pile. The whole point of the pile is to generate enough heat to break down the garbage you throw into it.  You want it to reach anywhere in the range from 135° F to 160° F.

Aerating the Pile

I have seen some compost piles with perforated PVC pipes rising from the center of the debris. The gardeners who do that say it’s intended to  get the air to the pile without the need to break a sweat working the pile with a spade fork.

I’m pretty sure I was the first person to try this many years ago, and it caught on hundredth monkey style until everyone was doing it. The thing is, it didn’t work. Not every monkey you sit at a typewriter ends up with a novel.

The pipe did bring air into the bowels of the compost pile as intended. Unfortunately, that air also cooled the internal temperature of the heap. Again, you want to generate heat to break down the garbage, and it need to be in the range from 135° F to 160° F to do that.

Now, if you’ve had success with that method—please tell me your secret.

The Miracle of Microbes

Probably one of the most fascinating things you will witness with regard to compost occurs during the winter. If your compost pile is the optimum size, filled with the correct combination of ingredients, and has been adequately hydrated and aerated, and the microbes are cutting things down to size, then during the chill of winter you will observe vapor rise from it. It’s almost as good as seeing mist rise from the Scottish Moors. This vapor tells you the compost is cooking in its ideal range.

Your compost is ready for use when it no longer emits heat and resembles the earth from which it came. The end result is economical “handmade” fertilizer.  Now that’s local!

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