We have all heard that “composting” is a good thing, and that “compost” is a good source of nutrition for your gardens and flower beds. So what exactly is composting, how can you get started doing it and why should you?
What is composting? The definition of composting is:
“The controlled aerobic biological de-composition of organic matter into a stable, humus-like product called compost. It is essentially the same process as natural decomposition except that it is enhanced and accelerated by mixing organic waste with other ingredients to optimize microbial growth.”
The definition of compost is:
"decayed organic material (as of leaves and grass) used to improve soil especially for growing crops "
So how do you get started? There are many ways to start a back-yard compost source, and today we are going to discuss “Pile Composting”. It is exactly what it sounds like. A pile of compost that you can use in your gardens and flower beds to get beautiful and bountiful results and harvests.
Pile composting consists of 4 ingredients:
Green Matter, Brown Matter, Water and Air.
Green Matter: is dead organic material such as lawn clippings and kitchen scraps. (Kitchen scraps include leafy greens, vegetable scraps, apple cores, coffee grounds and the like. Do not add any animal matter. Animal matter will not break down fast enough for your back-yard use and will likely attract unwanted critters to your pile. (There are two exceptions to this rule: eggshells and shrimp shells. Those will break down fast enough, and are ok to add into your green matter mix)
Brown Matter: is dried leaves, pine needles, sawdust, news paper, cardboard and that brown packing paper that is often found in your home delivery boxes. The cardboard, news paper and brown packing paper should be torn or cut up into small ish strips. NOTE: the packing tape, shipping labels and stickers on your cardboard is not compostable and needs to be removed before adding to your compost pile. Newspaper and other dull advertisements are great, but shiny magazine paper or advertisements are not good for use in your compost bin and should just be recycled.
Water: I suggest that you use a watering can instead of a hose as you only want your compost material damp, not dripping wet. Thing of a sponge that has been wrung out. Damp / Moist, but not soggy or dripping wet.
Air: This will be added as your “turn” your pile. You’ll need a pitchfork for this part of the job.
OK. Now it’s time to build your compost pile. You want your pile to have a mix of sun and shade, so pick an area in your yard that will allow for this. You’ll want a 50/50 mix of brown material and green material. Start building your pile by making layers. Green material, brown material, green material brown material then add some water to dampen the pile. Using your pitchfork, Mix the pile (“Turn”) every few layers, this will make it much easier on your back later! Repeat this process a few more times.
- When pile composting most people prefer to have a “3 pile system”: A brand new pile, a half done pile and a finished pile. This way you always have the compost you need through out the season. So plan your space accordingly if you can.
Periodically as you’re turning your pile, it’s not a bad idea to check for moisture. The brown matter is usually pretty dry and needs a little water. Use your watering can to add more if needed. Remember, just enough to keep it damp. This helps the decomposition process. If your pile is too wet, then it becomes a sticky sludge that is not very beneficial as the “bad” bacteria take over and overtake all the nutrients and “good bacteria”.
Once your pile is thoroughly mixed, the bulk of the work is done. Great Job You!
So now what? Well, we wait. It is important to come out and turn your pile every day (or at least every other day). By turning regularly, you eliminate the possibility of it turning to sludge, and are re introducing the 4th critical ingredient, AIR! All the bacteria and microbes that do the hard work of breaking down your pile, need that fresh mix of air, and occasional moisture to make their job easier to do. After about 48 hours, you’ll find that when you plunge your pitchfork into the pile, and make that first turn, you’ll see steam arising from the pile. This is a great sign! It means the decomposition process is working. Now depending on the weather and time of year, you may want to continue to use your watering can to add some more moisture back into the mix.
It is ok to add your kitchen scraps and lawn clippings into the pile weekly. Remember that when you add green matter, you also want to add brown matter in about a 50/50 ratio and really mix well. If your pile seems “too dry” add a tad of water, if your pile seems “too wet”, add some brown matter.
In about 30 days you’ll see your pile looks smaller that the day you started it. This is a great thing! It means everything is working as it should be. The green matter and brown matter are turning into nutrient rich compost. This is usually the “half done” pile. From here, if you have not already done so, this is a great time to start a new pile. Keep turning your pile daily. After about 60 days, your compost pile will look more like a mound of soil than the pile of clippings, kitchen scraps and brown matter you started with. This is what you have been working so hard for, and is now ready to add to your garden and flower beds!
With just a little work, and some free materials, you are building the best fertilizer you can use for your garden, flower beds, trees and shrubs.
Why are we composting on the ground instead of a tub or bin? Because tow worms will find it, and really help the process along. They will help break down the compost and also add the really beneficial “worm castings” back into your pile.
The image below shows the before and after of your pile from Day 1 to day 60. Notice on the left you can see brown paper, and saw dust mixed in with all the green material.
Your finished product will look much more like soil when it’s ready to be used, vs what you started with.
Some great uses for compost:
- Fertilizing: gardens, flower beds, trees, shrubs
- Top Dressing your lawn in late fall / early winter
- Break up hard compacted clay soil to make it more viable
- Add it sandy soil to help it hold water longer
Compost should not:
- Be a sticky sludge like pile of goop
- Have a super strong “garbage” odor
- Had animal products (meat, bones, dairy) in it
- Have tape, shipping labels, or stickers in the brown matter
- Be too wet (or else it will turn into sludge)
- Be turned daily
- Be about a 50/50 mix of green matter and brown matter
- Start to heat up and steam from the inside after a few days
- Be damp but not wet/ (Like a wrung out sponge)
- Have worms in it!
To this in about 60 days!