Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Easy Composting

Composting is a simple, natural process. There is no need to purchase special activators or fertilizers to make the materials in your compost pile or bin break down. Compost just happens! Here are some basic strategies for making compost "happen" for you:

Slow and Easy Composting
  1. Build your compost pile anytime of year.
  2. Create a simple, freestanding pile no more than 5 feet high (preferably 3 feet long on each side), or build or buy an inexpensive bin to keep your pile tidy.
  3. Locate on level, well-drained ground in either sun or shade -- stay away from wooden fences and buildings, and avoid placing on your neighbor's property line. Don't set up over shallow tree roots.
  4. Build a six inch base of branches, twigs or brush for drainage and aeration (old wooden pallets work extremely well).
  5. Use leaves by themselves -- or mix in grass and other "green" garden trimmings for quicker compost. When adding new materials to an existing pile, be sure to mix them in thoroughly -- especially green materials like grass. Don't create layers.
  6. Don't build your pile with grass alone -- mix in dry leaves, straw or wood chips to avoid odors.
  7. Moisten materials as you add them and leave a concave depression at the top of the pile to capture rainwater.
  8. Keep materials moist throughout the year -- but not wet. It is often best not to cover your pile to let water in. A dry pile will not compost.
  9. Never add meat, bones, fat, oils, dairy products or processed foods to avoid odors and pests. Never add diseased plants, weeds with seeds, or cat or dog wastes.
  10. Try to turn, fluff, or aerate on occasion -- whether every week, every month or just once or twice a year.
  11. Wait a while (6-12 months) and get ready to use your compost as a top-dressing for your lawn, a mulch for trees and shrubs, or a side-dressing for annuals, herbs, and vegetables.
  12. Compost is ready to use when it is dark brown-black, crumbly, and sweet-smelling. Enjoy!

Vintage Composting (Even Easier Composting)

  1. Use two bins: one bin for each alternate year (e.g. 2009, 2010).
  2. Add compostable materials only to one bin in the first year (2009).
  3. In the following year, leave the first bin alone and only add materials to the second bin. As the yard trimmings in the first bin decompose, the amount of materials in the bin will appear to shrink. Resist the temptation to "top off" the 2009 bin.
  4. With the next year (2011), harvest compost from 2009 bin and start filling with 2010 materials. Do not top off 2009 bin.
  5. Keep alternating, year after year, going from one bin to another with each year. Never add fresh materials to last year's bin.
  6. Materials in a vintage bin system will compost for at least 12-24 months; enough time to produce excellent mulch with almost no maintenance.
  7. To ensure high quality compost, use some of the basic steps (watering, turning) from the Slow and Easy method.

Active Composting (Fast, "Hot" Compost)

  1. Use a two- or three-bin system.
  2. Try to obtain a mixture of two parts (by volume) high nitrogen materials like grass and fresh-pulled weeds and one-part high-carbon materials like dried leaves and woodchips.
  3. Try to shred leaves (use lawnmower or mechanical shredder) and, especially, woody materials. Keep particle sizes small.
  4. Mix materials thoroughly together.
  5. Follow basic instructions for Slow and Easy method.
  6. Keep moisture level at 50% (consistency of a wrung-out sponge).
  7. Turn or "aerate" pile by moving materials from bin to bin (back and forth for 2-bin system, serially for 3-bin system) every 2-4 weeks.
  8. Compost should be ready in 6-12 weeks.


The best advice for handling problems with your compost pile is to treat that problem immediately. Key concerns are:

  • Odors. Usually caused by soggy, anaerobic conditions. Turn the pile thoroughly and add dry leaves or hay, if necessary. Set the pile on top of a wooden pallet or base of branches and twigs.
  • Pests. For rodent problems, remove and discontinue the addition of any food scraps. Turn pile more frequently; maintain moisture. For pets and scavengers, be sure to always bury food scraps under 1' of leaves and other compostables; place another pallet on top of pile to serve as a "lid." For insects like ants, flies, and bees, keep pile moist and turn more frequently.
  • Sluggish Pile. If your materials are not decomposing, check moisture content (it's the number one reason piles don't work); don't cover bin with plastic. Turn your pile to aerate it, increasing the oxygen content. Add nitrogen sources like grass clippings, weeds, agricultural manures, or urea.
Using Compost

You don't need large flower beds or a vegetable garden to use compost. Here are the most common applications:

  • Mulch. Apply compost up to 3" deep around trees and shrubs and in planting areas to suppress weed growth, provide a long-term supply of nutrients, conserve moisture, prevent soil erosion and compaction, and moderate soil temperature changes. Especially effective in fall and spring.
  • Topdressing. Spread compost 1/8"-1/4" deep on top of existing lawns with a spreader or rake. Finished compost should be sifted or "screened" to remove clumps and twigs. Build a simple, inexpensive sifter using hardware cloth and a frame of two-by-four lumber.
  • Sidedressing. A 1"-2" layer of compost can be spread around vegetables (especially tomatoes, peppers, eggplant), shrubs and flowers during active growing season to replace nutrients and protect root systems.
  • Soil Amendment. Mix 2"-3" of compost into the top 6"-8" of heavy clay or sandy soil with a mechanical tiller, garden spade, or shovel. Compost will improve drainage and moisture retention, prevent compaction, supply nutrients and make existing nutrients more available to plants.
  • Potting Mediums. Sifted compost (1/3 part) can be mixed with potting soil and vermiculite or perlite to create a superior potting medium.
NB: Composting that's going to be mixed into soil or potting mediums should be fully decomposed. Let compost age or "cure" for one month after removal from your bin.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

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