by Bryan Brown

Compost is constantly being created by nature. Composting is the natural decay of organic materials such as leaves, grass, wood, etc.

Gardeners have figured out, over the past century, how to speed up the process using air, water, nitrogen, and carbon, items that are already used in the process but which, when used properly, can create large amounts of compost in a relatively short period of time.

We create compost using whatever organic waste comes from our home, garden, and yard. My first foray into composting was dumping grass and kitchen waste into a big pile in the garden. The pile of rotting matter didn’t set well with my wife, so now everything is contained in a compost bin that I built.

Later I began adding leaves from a maple tree. I then discovered that layering rich soil or compost from the previous batch acts as a “starter” when added to the next compost pile.

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The Function of Water

There are a few tricks you need to know that will help you to make compost faster and better.

Water – how does it affect compost? If you have too much it reduces airflow, which in turn cools your compost heap, makes it stink, and slows down the composting process.

Of course, too little water also cools down your compost and slows down the process. So, how do you know how much water to add? Abigail Maynard, Ph.D, an agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says it should feel like a “wrung-out sponge.”

I guess you’ll need to go find a sponge, get it wet, and wring it out to know what that feels like. You’ll learn as you go is another way of stating the “sponge theory.”

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Carbon: The Energy Source

Carbon is the source of heat and energy in your compost heap. Carbon is found in brown and yellow things like straw and wood chips and corn stalks. These items are often referred to as “browns.”

If your compost heap has too much carbon, and not enough nitrogen, it will lack the microbial activity necessary to break down the ingredients of your compost quickly.

An ideal compost pile will have about a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen to ratio. As mowed grass is about 20:1, adding some two parts of dried leaves to your one part of grass will bring the ratio to 30:1. Just about perfect.

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Nitrogen: The Nutrient Source

Nitrogen is sometimes referred to as the “greens” of compost, even though brown, dead leaves may be part of that category. Mowed Grass, manure, or other similar items fit into this category.

If your pile has too much nitrogen, it will stink. Manure that isn’t tempered with carbon will create ammonia, a toxic and noxious gas.

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Air: For Speeding up the Process of Composting

Air circulation is important to composting. The reason you “fluff up” your heap is to keep an adequate amount of air in the heap to keep the process moving.

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Building the Compost Pile

Prepare the composting area by making the ground drainable so excess water doesn’t build up at the base of your compost heap. Your soil may already drain well, but if not, add scrap wood or branches at the bottom of the pile to let air in and moisture out.

Start your compost pile with grass clippings, hay and/or rotted manure
1. Add a layer of leaves, straw or sawdust.
2. Follow the above with kitchen scraps (no meat or eggs)
3. Scatter a few shovel loads of dirt or compost on top.
4. Spray with water to moisten organic mixture.
5. Place a dark-colored tarp or straw over the compost pile to prevent moisture loss.
6. Repeat this layering until the pile is 3 to 5 feet high
7. Let pile rest 3 to 10 days (fewer days is better) then turn – see the next section on turning the compost.

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Turning the Compost

Turning compost is just as it sounds. Push your shovel into the mixture and turn/toss it into the next prepared area. Do this until the first pile is transferred to the new spot. This is also very good exercise!

If you have fresh materials (and we usually do) put them where the first pile was. Then add dirt and/or some of that recently turned compost. Now you have two piles.

Depending on the method used, some gardeners often have 2-3 piles going at a time. If you have access to a tractor and scoop, well, lucky you!

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Compost Bins/Structures

There is a wide array of structures available to buy or to build for composting. The route you choose will be dependent on your budget and preference. The internet is full of instructions for building compost bins and you may want to look up some of these. I’m working on a new style of bin that I’ll tell you about soon. For now I will give simple solutions practical for composting.

An easy method is to use two or three 30-gallon garbage cans. This works well if you have a small house and property. It is still labor intensive but it is excellent in its ability to contain the compost. You will need to create some holes in the bottom and perhaps a few on the sides of the cans for air and drainage.

For a larger compost pile, use chicken wire strung along 4 or 5 “T” posts. Space these to the distance practical to your situation, but remember that too large of a pile inhibits airflow.

One popular but more expensive and permanent method is to build your compost bin with cinder blocks. These blocks are available at larger home and garden stores.

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The need for frequent turning is rooted in oxygen as a key component for decomposition. If your compost pile is 3 sq. ft. or greater, (after a few hours) it is necessary to insert holes in the pile to encourage air flow. A metal rod will double for creating a hole(s) and temperature gauge. After a few minutes take the rod out and touch. If it feels hot, then you’re on track. For precision, use a thermometer when turning compost to check temperature (Range: 115F-159F).

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Ingredients and Ratios

High Nitrogen
Alfalfa – 12:1
Legumes – 15:1
Kitchen scraps – 15:1
Coffee grounds – 20:1
Grass clippings – 20:1
Cow manure – 20:1
Fruit trimmings – 35:1

Strong Carbon
Sawdust – 500:1
Leaves – 80:1
Straw – 80:1
Corn Stalks – 60:1
Peat Moss – 60:1

The ability for decomposition to occur is directly related to the size of the material. The smaller the particle the more rapidly it will decompose.

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Just do it! The best way to learn how to create your own compost is to start today. You’ll improve with each subsequent batch. Compost is an excellent sustainable fertilizer for your garden’s soil, so start now and you’ll be glad you did.

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