Composting – It’s unfortunate how often that phrase intimidates gardeners. The fact is, anyone can compost, and there are so many benefits to enjoy as a result. Even if you have just a small yard or balcony, you can turn a pile of your raw household materials into the most beautiful, rich, dark, earthy material that is nature’s superfood for plants.
It can take some time for this transformation, but fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to speed up the process. Rest assured, composting does not have to involve complex ratios or expensive systems. It can be easy and free.
So Good for the Environment
Not only is finished compost just about the best thing you can provide your plants, it’s also great for the environment. After all, what better way to reduce our public landfills than transforming much of that waste into garden gold? A reduction of landfill waste also equals fewer greenhouse gases, but the list of environmental benefits from compost extends far beyond the landfill.
Compost works so powerfully to improve the tilthe of your soil, that it has a direct impact on reduced erosion and runoff. The rich organic nutrients from compost in soil will dramatically improve the health of your plants too; so they will require fewer, if any, supplemental fertilizers.
Healthier plants are better able to fend off pest and disease issues on their own, so compost ultimately reduces pesticide use – which is good for beneficial garden creatures.
Did you know that the manufacturing process for pesticides and fertilizers also carries a price on the environment? So, the reduction of our individual use of these synthetic products ripples far beyond our own corners of the world.
Great for the Garden
So, what about compost makes it the single best soil amendment you can add to your garden? Well, it converts all the raw materials that you add into all the materials necessary for plant growth – including trace elements and humic acid (an important ingredient that helps make plant nutrients available).
All of the raw materials in your home which can biodegrade contain nutrients. Those nutrients become a part of the final compost product during decomposition. Actually, they are contained and stored within the bodies of all the organisms that were at work during decomposition.
Let’s talk about those organisms for a minute. There is much more at work than the earthworms and roly poly insects you might see crawling around in there.
A compost heap consists of an incredible diversity of organisms that make up the cast of characters which break down all the raw materials. They range in size from the tiniest one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa; to the more complex nematodes and earthworms.
There’s a whole world of activity going on in there which, ultimately, is transferred to your soil. As those organisms reproduce and die in this miniature circle of life, they release the nutrients which have been stored up in their bodies, so that those nutrients become available to your plants. The organisms, along with beneficial fungicides which develop in compost, also help to suppress disease-causing organisms by either killing or inhibiting them.
Plant nutrients, disease suppression, improved soil texture – all of these desirable outcomes start with your raw household materials.
It’s Easier Than You Think
Oftentimes, instructions for making compost make the process seem complex. Browns and greens, carbon and nitrogen, 4-to-1, 2:3 – it’s no wonder that so many would-be composters just never get started. So, let’s boil this down to the basics.
Most biodegradable materials can be added into your composting system.
It’s the consumption of the raw materials by all the microorganisms (along with the larger creatures, like earthworms and roly poly bugs), which causes decomposition. That feeding frenzy – at its most basic – is focused on carbon (aka brown) and nitrogen (aka green). Hungry microorganisms need some of both.
How much brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) material should you be feeding your little microbial friends? Well, don’t worry about all the ratios you might see out there. Ultimately, you just need to create balance, but more on that in a minute.
So, you need brown and green materials. What are those exactly? Well, brown materials are the source of carbon, and green materials are the source of nitrogen. Don’t let the physical color of the material fool you either. Here are some common examples of each type:
Brown (Carbon) Materials
From Indoors: coffee grounds, shredded paper and newspapers, cardboard, stale bread
From Outdoors: dried leaves, small twigs, sawdust, hay
Green (Nitrogen) Materials
From Indoors: eggshells, vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, tea bags
From Outdoors: fresh grass clippings, plant trimmings, chicken manure
These are all good inputs for your compost. But if you are keen to take your compost to a higher nutrient level, consider the quality of your inputs too. Since it’s the nutrients within the raw materials which become the nutrients available to your plants through compost, it’s no surprise that the quality of your inputs will have an impact on the value of your compost.
Higher quality inputs make a difference. For instance, the scraps from the vegetables of your own garden will likely contain more nutrients than commercially-grown store-bought produce.
Eggshells are another great example. Did you know eggshells are roughly 40% calcium? They are a terrific material to add to your compost heap. That’s a vital mineral that all plants need to grow and thrive. What’s even better? Eggshells also contain potassium, magnesium, and sulfur – important nutrients that plants need to perform their best.
Eggshells from your own backyard chickens or, if you don’t have chickens, buying eggs which come from free-range, organic hens – like Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs whose hens are raised Certified Humane® Free Range – which forage in the grass for seeds and grubs (as chickens were meant to!) will, in turn, offer more nutrients through the compost for your plants.
On the other hand, adding any questionable raw material can carry through to create unintended consequences in your garden. For example, never add diseased plant material or weed seeds to your compost heap. They will likely survive the decomposition process and, when you add the finished product to your garden, will just spread the problem.
Some other materials to avoid include any meat product and manure from meat-eating animals (which carry the risk of dangerous pathogens). Chemically-treated plant materials or grass clippings are also a bad idea. The chemicals can persist through the finished compost and negatively impact the plants in your garden.
How It All Works
You could throw a mix of raw materials into a pile and walk away. Even if you did nothing else, the existing microorganisms within the raw material and the surrounding environment would slowly digest and break down the pile into compost. That would be fine, but it would take many months to get finished compost.
Why? Just like us, microbes can only eat so much at a time. More microbes means more decomposition, so if you want to speed up the process, foster an environment which will create a population explosion. For that, you just need water, air and balance.
Water: Microorganisms need water to thrive, so keep the compost pile moist. A good rule of thumb is to wet the pile about once a week (in the absence of rain) to keep the material the consistency of a damp sponge.
Air: Like all creatures, microorganisms require air to breathe. Turning the materials in the pile – basically mixing all the materials – once each week, infuses the heap with vital oxygen. Mix the materials with a shovel or a pitchfork – or any tool which allows you to stir and re-assemble the entire heap.
Balance: Don’t give too much thought to ingredient ratios. Strive for an even balance of brown and green materials. Ideally, more brown than green is optimal – but it’s not necessary for a healthy compost heap.
When you provide moisture, air and a balance of ingredients; the microorganisms in the heap are healthier and multiply rapidly. The more microorganisms you have, the more digestion of raw materials is going on, and all that activity generates heat.
The optimal temperature for a home compost pile to break down quickly is around 150 degrees F. At that temperature, you will likely see steam rising from the heap when you mix the pile and expose the core.
A compost thermometer is an inexpensive tool for an easy temperature reading. Knowing the specific temperature can really help you because, if it falls, that’s your first indication that you don’t have a good balance of materials.
As your compost approaches the end of final decomposition – just before it’s finished and ready to add to your soil – it will naturally cool down to ambient temperature. However, if the temperature within a young pile drops, go back to the basics.
When you’ve been keeping the pile moist and mixed, dropping temperatures will be due to an imbalance of ingredients. If you’ve added a lot of green materials, look for more brown materials to add – or vice versa. As you adjust the balance of materials within the pile, you will see the temperature of the pile reflect the change.
What if your pile never gets up to 150 degrees F or, even, 100 degrees F? Don’t worry. This is not a sign of failure, and it doesn’t mean that your materials won’t turn to compost. The process will just take a little longer. Rather than finished compost in two months, you may have to wait four months, for example. Have patience – with your compost and with yourself. The reward will be worth the wait.
One more point regarding temperature, placing the compost heap in the sun won’t impact the heat of the pile significantly. In fact, I keep my compost in the shade. Hot compost is all about a thriving party of microbial activity.
Hopefully, these basic steps help to break down some of the mystery of composting. There’s no time like the present to start, and as you continue the process, it will become second nature. It won’t take long to begin to recognize just how much of your household waste can be thrown into a compost heap to transform into gardener’s gold.