Composting made simple: A real-world guide

Composting is an age-old method that transforms organic waste into a rich soil amendment known as compost. Through this natural process, organic materials decompose into a soil-like mass, termed 'humus,' which serves as a vital nutrient source for plants. While the basic ingredients for compost can vary, they generally fall into two categories: 'greens' (such as vegetable peels, grass clippings, and leaves) and 'browns' (including branches and twigs). Traditionally, creating compost involves layering these materials, akin to building a ‘layered cake’, in a designated area. However, this method, while effective, can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. In this article, we explore practical and quicker alternatives to traditional composting, enabling you to enrich your garden without investing excessive time or effort.

Setting up your compost pile

When it comes to organizing a compost pile in practice, the location can be almost anywhere on your property. While it's entirely possible to start composting in the middle of your garden, most people prefer not to have it as a centerpiece of their landscape. A practical solution is to construct a compost bin using boards to form three or four sides. The key is to ensure that your compost has ample access to air. Without sufficient airflow, composting can still occur, but it will be a much slower process. Since we're focusing on achieving realistic and quick results, maintaining proper air circulation is crucial.

Your main goal when starting your compost pile should be to keep its height under 4.9 feet (approximately 1.5 meters), although its length can be as extensive as you need. This height restriction ensures that your compost pile remains manageable and promotes better air and moisture penetration throughout the pile, which are essential for the composting process to occur efficiently. By adhering to these guidelines, you can create a functional and effective composting area that won't take over your garden space but will still provide you with rich, nutritious compost for your plants.

What to include in your compost and how to do it

As we've already mentioned, a successful compost pile includes both green and brown organic materials. Green organics are fresh plant materials such as grass clippings, leaves, and fruits, while brown organics comprise dead materials like straw, wood, and fallen leaves. These two types of organics differ mainly in moisture content; green materials often contain more moisture and may not need additional watering, whereas brown materials won't decompose into compost without moisture.

From a scientific perspective, the composting process hinges on the correct ratio of carbon (found predominantly in brown organics) to nitrogen (found in green organics). The bacteria that break down your compost feed on nitrogen. If there's not enough nitrogen, the bacteria won't be as effective. Simply piling up branches and fallen leaves might lead to a very slow composting process because of the lack of nitrogen.

Therefore, it's crucial to balance your compost pile by adding green organics. You can also boost the nitrogen content by watering your compost with nitrogen-rich fertilizers. However, a word of caution: if you're planning to use nitrogen fertilizers, it's best to avoid adding sawdust to your compost pile. Incorrectly managed, this combination can become a fire and explosion hazard.

Ultimately, the ideal compost mix includes a diverse range of organic materials, with a good balance of green and brown organics, all thoroughly mixed together. There's no need for precise layering; a well-mixed pile will compost effectively. However, if you find yourself with an excess of brown organics, you might need to add a nitrogen-rich solution, such as a mineral fertilizer or a solution of chicken manure, to speed up the composting process. This adjustment ensures that your compost pile decomposes efficiently, turning waste into valuable nutrients for your garden.

Quick compost recipe in just 1.5 months

If you're new to composting but eager to use the fruits of your labor within the same year, hot composting might be the method for you. This technique requires a significant amount of green organic matter. To achieve hot composting, you'll need to turn your compost pile every three days, keeping it moist with a 1% urea solution, followed by a sugar solution (or any other carbon source) to alternate between nitrogen and carbon. This process generates hot compost, with the final product ready in just about a month.

But this method has both advantages and disadvantages:
  • Speed: Obviously, the main advantage is how quickly you can get compost ready for use.
  • Weed and pest control: The high temperatures in hot composting kill off weeds, pests, and diseases, making it a clean and safe composting option.
  • Quantity: One downside is that you'll end up with much less compost compared to traditional methods – about five times less from the original volume.
  • Nutrient content: Hot compost tends to have lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Given these characteristics, hot composting is best suited for processing weeds, diseased plants, and pest-infested materials. While it might not produce as much compost or be as nutrient-rich as the compost from slower methods, its speed and the hygienic quality of the resulting compost make it a valuable technique for specific gardening needs.

Should you cover your compost pile?

Whether or not to cover your compost pile depends on your specific circumstances and environmental conditions. If you're composting healthy plants and aiming for a self-sustaining composting process, your primary concern should be the weather conditions in your area.

When to cover your compost:
  • Heavy and prolonged rain: If your region experiences frequent, heavy rainfall, it’s advisable to cover your compost pile. While moisture is necessary for composting, too much water can lead to an oxygen deficit, making it difficult for the bacteria to function effectively. In such cases, covering your compost can prevent excess moisture from saturating the pile.
  • Winter composting: Similarly, if you’re preparing your compost for the winter, covering it can protect it from becoming too wet due to snow or rain, which could slow down the decomposition process.
When to water your compost:
  • Dry weather: Conversely, in areas prone to dry weather, your compost pile may need regular watering to maintain an adequate moisture level. Compost requires a certain amount of moisture to facilitate the breakdown of organic materials, so in dry conditions, adding water is essential.
Variable weather conditions:
  • If your area experiences fluctuating weather patterns, with periods of both rain and dry spells, you might not need to take any specific action. Nature will likely provide enough variation in moisture to keep your compost pile in good condition without the need for covering or additional watering.

Can you continuously add fresh organic material to your compost pile?

Yes, you can. Adding fresh organic material to your compost pile as you generate it is not only feasible but can also be beneficial for the composting process. As you add new layers of organic matter, the lower layers in the pile will become more compact. If you add new materials gradually, beneficial microorganisms from the lower layers will slowly migrate upwards to the fresh material, thereby accelerating the composting process.

Starting in the spring, if you regularly add fresh organic waste to your compost pile, by the time autumn arrives, the lower layers will have transformed into compost. This mature compost can then be used for your garden in the following season.

This method of continuously adding to your compost pile allows for a steady cycle of decomposition and ensures that you can have a constant supply of compost at different stages of readiness. It's an efficient way to manage organic waste while enriching your garden soil with valuable nutrients.

How to compost hard-to-decompose waste

Dealing with a large amount of brown organic material and wanting to turn it into compost requires a specific approach, especially for harder-to-decompose residues like branches or stumps. Here's how you can tackle this:

  • Chop it up: First, you'll want to chop these materials into smaller pieces, ideally around 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) in size. This increases the surface area available for microorganisms to work on, speeding up the decomposition process.
  • Layer loosely: When adding these materials to your compost pile, ensure they are loosely piled to maintain airflow. Compacting the materials too much can restrict oxygen circulation, slowing down the composting process.
  • Add bio-preparations: Every 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) of layering, sprinkle the pile with any available bio-preparations containing beneficial bacteria. These preparations help kickstart the decomposition process.
  • Nutrient boost: After three days, drench the pile with the following solution: dissolve 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of urea and 1 ounce (30 grams) of double superphosphate in water. Prepare the double superphosphate by soaking the required amount in boiling water overnight. In the morning, add urea and dilute the mixture to make up 2.6 gallons (10 liters) of solution. This nutrient-rich solution aids in breaking down the material more efficiently. Adjust the quantity of the solution based on the volume of material you're composting, keeping the proportions the same.
  • Aerate and monitor temperature: Periodically aerate the pile by poking holes to allow air to circulate through the compost. Also, it's crucial to monitor the temperature of the pile, ensuring it doesn't exceed 104°F (40°C). High temperatures can kill beneficial microorganisms necessary for composting.

Composting, in reality, isn't just about following textbook instructions; it's about getting your hands dirty and learning what works best in your own backyard. This guide aimed to provide you with practical knowledge on how to create compost efficiently, focusing on real-life methods rather than ideal scenarios. We hope this information empowers you to start or improve your composting process, leading to the richest and most nutritious soil for your garden. Remember, the best compost is the one that you make yourself, tailored to the needs of your plants and the environment. Here's to hoping your compost pile thrives, contributing to a greener, more sustainable world.