What is Composting?
Composting can be defined as a method of decomposing garden waste under controlled conditions. Leaves, grass clippings and weeds are broken down by microorganisms into a dark, crumbly material called humus. The art of composting is setting up and maintaining the environmental conditions under which these microorganisms work best.
A Fall Activity That Pays Big Dividends
Soil condition is the single most important aspect of successful gardening. More landscapes and lawns fail to flourish because of poor soil than any other reason. The best way to improve soil is through the addition of organic matter. And there’s no better type of organic matter than compost. In terms of soil improvement compost is better than top soil, even better than peat moss, and it’s FREE!
The Environment of the Compost Microorganisms
The microorganisms that turn yard waste into compost require the following as part of their environment:
- A food source and a nitrogen source
The Greens and Browns
The food of the compost microorganisms is carbon and it’s found in all of your organic yard and garden waste. Yard waste that’s brown in color, old leaves for example, are high in carbon, but low in nitrogen. The microorganisms need nitrogen to reproduce. The ideal environment has about 30 times more carbon than nitrogen; we say this is a 30 to 1 C:N ratio.
While the brown colored yard waste is high in carbon the green colored waste, such as grass clippings, is high in nitrogen. When building a compost pile it’s important to try to have a mixture of at least 1 part green material for every 10 parts brown material.
Providing Air and Water
The compost microorganisms are living things and they need air and water to survive. The real trick to building a successful compost pile lies in allowing air to easily enter the pile. If a pile of yard and garden waste becomes matted down, this excludes air from the pile and the composting microorganisms die, then the pile begins to stink. A well built compost pile should be damp but not spongy in texture. This indicates there is plenty of air in the pile.
On the other hand, if the compost pile gets plenty of air but too little water the microorganisms work slowly and the composting process dramatically slows down.
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Getting Hot With Compost
When the compost pile is just what the composting microorganisms like, they work hard at decomposing the organic waste, they multiply, and they generate heat. A well made compost pile will get hot. Or at least it will try to get hot. Whether or not the temperature goes up will depend of the size of the pile. If the pile is below a critical size more heat will be lost from the pile to the air and the microorganisms will not be able to maintain an increase in compost temperature. However, if the compost pile is at last three feet square, that’s a pile three feet wide, three feet deep and three feet high, there will be an increase in heat. It is not uncommon for well built compost piles to reach internal temperatures of 140° F. in a day or two.
The rise in temperature causes the microorganisms to work even faster and the conversion of raw, yard and garden waste proceeds at breakneck speed.
Practical Composting for the Small Scale Yard
Of course I realize that not every yard is going to produce enough grass clippings and weeds to build a 3 x 3 x 3 foot compost pile; that’s a lot of material. When you are not generating large amounts of yard waste you can still compost but on a smaller scale.
The practical method of small scale composting is to build a compost bin, I use three wooden pallets nailed together, and simply dump all organic yard waste into the bin. The slow accumulation of yard waste will never develop into a hot compost pile in which the yard waste decomposes in a few weeks. Instead, it will be a cold pile, and the composting process will take months to be completed. Nevertheless, you’ll still be recycling your organic yard waste and you’ll still end up with a superb soil amendment; it’ll just take longer.
Managing the Cold Compost Pile
When practicing small scale, cold composting you have to guard against the pile getting too wet and compacted. Try to mix many different types of organic waste together in the pile. If grass clippings, leaves and weeds are mixed together there is little chance of everything packing down and becoming compacted. Don’t fill the pile with 100 percent grass clippings, or 100 percent leaves. Such a homogeneous pile leads to compaction which leads to a lack of air in the pile which leads to a smelly pile. If you notice that your compost pile smells and seems compacted you’ll have to pull it apart and rebuild it. This is the only way to get air into the pile and end the odor problem.
Fine Tuning the Compost Process
One of the best methods to improving your composting is to shred all organic waste before it goes into the pile. The finer the waste is chopped the more surface area on which the microorganisms can work and the faster the decomposition process. A modest sized, well constructed compost pile, made with shredded waste, will heat up quickly and turn out humus in just a few weeks.
The second thing to keep an eye on to fine tune your composting is the carbon to nitrogen ratio. If you place materials in the pile that are mostly carbon, such as leaves, the decomposition process will be slow. If there is not a sufficient amount of green materials available (grass clippings, etc.) add a few handfuls of garden or lawn fertilizer to the leaves. This will add the extra nitrogen to really help the compost pile cook.
Over the years I’ve built hundreds of compost piles and even now I have four in the yard. There is just no substitute for compost in the improvement of yard and garden soil. Start a compost pile today and turn your yard waste into black gold.