It looks like dirt and smells like dirt, but it’s not. It’s teeming with bacterial and fungal activity. It’s the nutrient-rich, life-giving material dreams are made of: we’re talking about compost, baby!
Compost enriches our soils, feeds our veggies, and makes quick work of the organic waste we produce.
Let’s get digging into what composting can do for your garden and some of the different compost methods that can be used.
Why Would You Compost?
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Composting can seem daunting from the onset, but it’s well worth the effort.
- An inch of compost on top of a garden bed can carry your plants through a season of vigorous growth. When added to the bases of fruit trees, it aids in the production of flavorful, nutrient-packed fruit.
- Soil trouble? Compost transforms sandy dirt into water-retaining, nutrient-rich soil. Similarly, it can lighten water-logged clay soils into something significantly more workable.
- Managing your own waste is an earth-friendly initiative. Instead of using fossil fuels to cart your yard waste and food scraps away to the municipal compost program (assuming that you have one), you can turn your waste into compost on-site, closing the loop a little further and reducing your environmental impact.
- High-quality compost isn’t cheap. If you have a large garden, the expense can add up. Making your own compost is an affordable—often free—solution.
Composting Materials: Green vs. Brown
When discussing composting, you’ll hear talk of “green” and “brown” materials.
Brown materials tend to be dry, brown, and rich in carbon. Examples include:
- Wood chips
- Paper products (newspaper, paper plates, napkins, coffee filters, tea bags)
A pile with too much brown material is slow to break down and will not reach a high enough temperature to kill weed seeds and harmful bacteria.
Because brown materials are slow to break down, it is often possible to save up a big pile of leaves or bales of straw for future use.
Green materials tend to be moist, green, and rich in nitrogen. Examples include:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Coffee grounds and tea bags
- Plant trimmings
- Manure (Horse, goat, rabbit, sheep, chicken, etc.)
A pile that has too much green material will break down quickly and be very hot. There have actually been rare instances of compost piles combusting. When temperatures are too high, some nitrogen is lost and beneficial bacteria start to die off.
You should aim to include a wide variety of materials in your compost. The more diverse the materials, the wider range of nutrients you’ll find in your finished compost.
Let’s look at six common composting methods and explore their merits and drawbacks.
One of the most popular methods, hot composting involves alternating five-inch layers of green and brown material in a large pile that measures at least one cubic meter.
At this size, the center of the heap can generate enough heat to break down material quickly and destroy any weed seeds as well as traces of E. coli and salmonella that may be present in animal manure. You should aim for your pile to reach 140°F (60°C).
Proper moisture is important; it allows the bacterial, fungal, and worm populations that decompose organic material to thrive. If you squeeze a handful of material, one drop should come out.
Climate also plays a role in compost pile moisture.
In climates with heavy rainfall, compost bins need to be sheltered. In drier climates, watering your compost heap may be a weekly chore.
A typical hot compost system involves “turning” your pile twice. Turning essentially refers to the process of unpiling and repiling the stack.
When turning a compost pile, your goal is to push the more decomposed material from the center of the pile to the outer edge and bring the coarse material on the outside of the stack into the center of the pile where it will break down faster.
You know you are ready to turn your compost heap when it reaches 140°F. When the temperature level peaks at 140°F again and then begins to fall, you are ready for your second flip. After the second flip, the material cures for a few more weeks before it is complete.
The entire process can take as little as three months.
The 18-Day Permaculture Method
The 18-Day Permaculture Method is one of the fastest composting methods. Like hot composting, the finished compost will be free from weed seeds and temperature-sensitive harmful bacterial.
When building your pile, you will need:
- 1/3 Finely shredded brown materials
- 1/3 Manure (if using old manure, break it up)
- 1/3 Fresh green material
The pile must be at least one cubic meter and should be piled in such a way that it stands 5-feet high and looks like a volcano.
If desired, an “activator” can be placed at the center of the pile to launch microbial activity. Activators include comfrey, nettles, yarrow, finished compost, urine, fish, or animal carcasses. At this point, the pile should be covered.
- After four days, the pile will begin to warm, and you will turn the pile for the first time. From here, the heap needs to be turned every second day until you reach Day 18.
- Day 6 and 8 will be the warmest. In a perfect world, you would measure around 140°F. After each turning of the pile, be sure to cover the heap back up again.
- By Day 18, the temperature of the pile should have dropped and the materials should be fully broken down. If the pile has not fully broken down by Day 18, add two more days.
The more finely chopped materials are, the quicker they break down.
The increased surface area allows bacteria to better access it. Because this method has such a short turnaround, chopping materials up into small pieces is recommended.
Like hot composting, you want to be sure that you are keeping the pile adequately moist. If the outside of the pile is cooler than the middle, add more water. If the outside of the heap is hot and the center is cooler, the pile is too wet.
Cold composting is by far the slowest composting method; it can take a year (or longer) to see finished material.
Yet, cold composting calls to my lazy inner gardener that says, “Hey! Mother Nature will gladly do all that work for you.” And that’s the philosophy at the heart of cold composting.
Heap everything up and leave it.
You’ll still want to have a good mix of green and brown ingredients, but with a cold compost pile, you aren’t doing any of the turning and temperature monitoring. You’re just allowing Mother Nature to do her work according to her own schedule.
Because this method does not reach that critical temperature of 140°F, you shouldn’t add aggressive weeds, plants that have gone to seed, meat, dairy, or dog/cat waste. This method will not destroy viable seeds and harmful bacteria.
Nonetheless, it is quite lovely to have something in the garden that takes care of itself.
- Tumbling composter – avoid digging and mixing your compost pile by hand. The tumbling...
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If you have difficulty turning a compost pile, but you want to enjoy the benefits of hot composting, consider a compost tumbler, like the FCMP Tumbling Composter in the image above.
To create compost in one of these machines, you would fill it with an equal mix of green and brown (even small amounts of meat!), and then spin it daily.
It can take as little as three weeks to get compost using this method.Amazon product
As you would with any hot composting method, monitor moisture and temperature levels carefully to ensure that 140°F is reached.
One of the biggest benefits of this method is that it is extremely difficult for pests to access your compost. If you’re fighting a rodent infestation, compost tumblers are a great way of removing a food source, yet continuing to get a good harvest of compost.
One drawback to this method is the lack of worms and the many beneficial microbes associated with worms.
Vermicomposting / Worm Farming
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On the opposite end of the worm spectrum, vermicomposting harnesses a Red Wiggler’s innate ability to rapidly break down food scraps into a highly desirable form of compost called worm castings.
Brown materials, such as leaves and newspaper, provide bedding for the worms while weekly additions of fruit and vegetable scraps feed the worms.
Worms will happily devour most vegetable and fruit scraps, but meat and dairy products should be avoided. After each feeding, add a bit of bedding on top to minimize unpleasant odors.
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Once a worm bin is established, the worms can eat their own body weight each day, which is pretty incredible. Although, most worm farmers find that half a pound of worms eats a pound of food per day.
Despite the industriousness of these worms, this composting method tends to take between four to six months.
Worms are living creatures that have specific needs. Worms breathe through their skins, and they need moisture to do this.
Bedding should be wet to the touch, but not dripping. If too much water is added, worms drown, so it’s important to get the water level perfect. Worms are known to stage jailbreaks and escape if their habitat isn’t to their liking!
Ideal temperatures for worms are between 4°C and 24°C. For this reason, many people choose to have worm bins in their garages or basements.
Like chickens, worms do not have teeth, and they need a bit of grit to help them digest their meals. For this reason, many worm enthusiasts sprinkle some sand into their worm bins.
While this is not a hot composting method, finished compost should still be free from weed seeds because worms are fed household waste, not yard waste.
A unique benefit of vermicomposting is “worm tea.”
Worm bins have drainage holes drilled in the bottom. The liquid that seeps out of these holes can be kept, mixed with water, and added to plants as a liquid fertilizer.
Burying Food Scraps
When a tomato grows, it pulls its own unique cocktail of minerals from the soil and into its leaves. Yet, a bean plant will pull an entirely different combination from the soil – in fact, beans actually add nitrogen back into the soil!
Given that each plant depletes soil differently, why do we amend each bed with exactly the same compost? Native American farming practices address this question.
At the end of the season, instead of removing the dying tomato vine and tossing it onto a compost pile where it stews with a medley of other materials, they bury the plant in the same location where it grew.
This way, the same minerals that were pulled from the soil are returned to exactly the same space that they came from. It’s as close to a closed-loop system as possible.
In the fall, when the plants have died back, an eight-inch trench is dug in the center of the bed, and the bodies of the plants are buried. The closer the material is left to the surface, the longer it will take to break down. If buried deeply, everything should be decomposed in time for the following spring.
How to Tell if Compost is Finished
A textbook timeline is all well and good, but in real life, things don’t always go to plan.
So, how do you tell that your compost is finished?
Try these three simple steps:
- If using a hot composting method, the pile shouldn’t be warm.
- You should not be able to recognize your initial ingredients. The exception is sticks. Wood takes a long time to break down. Fortunately, fungus actually likes some twiggy bits!
- Take a sniff. It should smell like earth, not like rotting vegetables or manure.
Composting can be quite a science, but don’t be too hard on yourself. At the end of the day, Mother Nature will make sure that your compost breaks down.
Effective composting just expedites the process a bit. So, be brave, be bold, go forth, and compost
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