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This weekend: How to compost at home

When we think about gardening, plants get all of the attention.  But most experienced gardeners will tell you again and again that it's all about feeding the soil.  Good soil yields good, healthy plants.  I'm not a soil expert, and I'm learning as I go along, but in my experience this is certainly the case.  The parts of the garden where I've fed the soil over the last few years have soft, rich feeling soil, and plants seem healthier there.  

You can definitely feed your soil with bags of various amendments from the garden center:  worm castings, chicken manure, compost, and all sorts of proprietary blends.  But given that we're doing what we can with what we've got at home, I thought I'd share some composting basics so you can make your own excellent soil amendment without going anywhere.

Composting may seem like a sidekick project compared with the "real" job of growing plants, but in many ways composting is the real gardening job, with healthy plants as the result.

Getting started with composting raw material

Here's how to get started.

In its essence, composting is extremely simple.  Any plant matter left alone long enough breaks down into humus, that rich decomposed crumbly stuff you'll find along the forest floor.  If you leave a pile of leaves in the corner of your garden, it will compost eventually. So that's the extremely easy, very slow method:  put your yard clippings in a pile and come back in a couple years.

For faster composting (and a finished product richer in nutrients for your plants), a few things will help:

1.  Visualize how compost works.  Microorganisms break down the biodegradable material you feed them to create heat and lovely soil.  The heat, in turn stimulates the microorganisms which speeds up composting, getting hotter, and killing off pathogens.  Some big piles can even get hot enough to kill off the beneficial microbes or catch on fire, but that is almost impossible under home composting conditions.  (Piles have to be really big to get that hot.)

2.  Keep it moist and airy.  Compost microbes need oxygen and moisture to thrive.  If you live somewhere soggy, you may need to protect your compost from too much water, and in dry climates, you'll have to water your compost pile occasionally.

Turning your compost adds oxygen to your pile.  You can literally turn the entire pile from one spot to another, or just stick a garden fork in and mix it around.

3.  Create a big enough pile, at least a yard cubed.  Smaller than that and you don't get the critical mass for the composting microbes to do their thing.

compost greens and browns

4.  Keep balance of "greens" and "browns".  This can get super confusing if you try to get it exactly right.  I find it easier to work with what I have and then troubleshoot based on the following:

If your compost breaks down slowly and stays cold, add more "greens" if you have them.

If your compost gets stinky, add more "browns" and more air.

"Greens" are high in nitrogen and generally (but not always) green.  Some examples:

  • Fresh green weeds and clippings
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Fresh, green, lawn trimmings
  • Manure of any kind (brown in color, but high in nitrogen)
  • Coffee grounds (brown in color, but high in nitrogen)
  • Pee (as in yours)

Browns are low in nitrogen and mostly brown.  Some examples:

  • Dry leaves, grass or old clippings.  (Nitrogen leaves the plant materials as it dries out and turns brown.)
  • Paper and cardboard without any slick coatings
  • Saw dust from untreated, unpainted wood
  • Natural fiber fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp)

5.  Here's what not to add to a home compost pile: 

  • Meats, fats, dairy, anything cooked, kitty litter.  These will attract vermin, and unless you can ensure your pile stays hot enough, long enough, they can cause and spread disease.  (Advanced composters do safely compost all those things and more, including human poop, but that's a whole 'nother ballgame. Some interesting perspectives on that here and here.)
  • Weed seeds, diseased plants, and invasives that regrow easily from plant bits like ivy and blackberries.  (If your pile gets hot enough, these won't be a problem, but most home composting doesn't get nearly hot enough.)
  • Big sticks.  They take way too long to break down.  You can always try a stick to see how it does, and then pull it out of your finished compost if it's still intact.

Compost bin Smith and Hawken Bio Stack

6.  Contain it, or not.  There's tons of inspiration on the internets showing all the ways to contain your compost pile.  Strictly speaking a bin isn't necessary, but it does help to keep things tidy.  We inherited this Smith and Hawken Bio-Stack when we moved into our house.  It's very practical, but I don't love the black plastic look.

7.  Chop it up into smaller pieces.  Smaller pieces mean more surface area, which means it can break down faster.  If you have a lawn mower, I've heard that works well, by just driving the mower across the yard clippings.  I don't have a lawn or mower and use hedge shears to chop everything.  Once I started doing that, my composting speeded way up!

 

8.  It's done when you can't recognize any of the original bits.  It should look, feel and smell like lovely rich soil.  If you end up with a blend of finished nice compost and uncomposted bits, you can sieve the mix to separate the good stuff and stick the unfinished bits back in the bin.

Now that I've told you the best practices, I'll tell you about what I actually do. 

I don't monitor the green / brown mix very closely.  I just compost whatever I have.  Sometimes it's heavy on greens, but mostly it skews towards browns.  I do use a thermometer because I love the feedback of the pile heating up after I turn it.  But it rarely goes above 80-90F. 

compost thermometer

I turn the pile when I have a bunch of new material to add, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. As I turn, I scoop out the finished(ish) stuff and set it aside.

My finished compost is never completely done, and I don't sieve it.  I just use it as a high-nutrient mulch on whatever spot in the garden needs some love (usually veggies).

Now that we're in our extended stay-at-home though, I'm working on my compost game.  I really want some high quality compost to use in homemade potting soil now that I can't go out and get a convenient big bag of worm castings!  I'm being more conscious of having enough greens in the mix, and am planning to make a sieve from some hardware cloth we have kicking around in the garage.

 How is your composting going?  What ideas do you have for the rest of us?

 


1 comment

  • I love my small ORTA self watering micro greens planter that I got as a Christmas gift and I just took over managing the composting for my 12 unit building here in Bklyn, NY. Our (3) 90 gallon bins had become stagnant and had a vomit smell before self quarantine began ‘March 14th. I found our misplaced giant corkscrew turning tool and have spent the last 4 weeks turning, adding browns, discarding rotting eggs and adding a friend’s partially composted chicken poop and hay; Our pile now smokes when it’s turned and we are able to keep up with all the vegetable scraps from 6 families who are into composting.
    I’ve learned that citrus peels and raw eggs are a big problem! All pulp should be removed from citrus and they should be diced small. Eggshells can be added if you rinse, toast for 4 minutes and crush before adding.
    The hope is that we can increase the speed of turnover and make nutritious soil for all the tree beds on our block.I look forward to seeing your posts.

    Jeanne Gilliland

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