Gardening Articles: Care :: Plant Care Techniques
What's Your Composting Personality?
by Charlie Nardozzi
Compost piles need not be fancy or pretty.
When it comes to gardening style, there really isn't any right or wrong, just what works for you. From avant-garde to traditional, bold (orange and red annual borders) to subdued (textured shades of green around a pond), anything goes.
Composting is the same. Since the 1980s, when "ecologically correct" became a gardening byword, gardeners have tried to find the perfect way to make compost. But don't get too serious about your technique. Remember no matter what style you use, everything eventually rots. Here we offer you a few suggestions to help speed the process. First, find your composting personality by taking our fun quiz below.
To determine your score, add up the numbers after each answer, then turn the page to find your profile. We've simplified the styles, so most gardeners will find aspects of themselves in each type. Read through all the profiles to get the best sense of what it will take to complete your composting personality.
The Quiz: What's Your Composting Personality?
1. When choosing a bin for composting, do you:
a. build one based on an architectural design? (1)
b. buy the latest Cadillac model? (2)
c. buy a midpriced version from a chain store? (3)
d. slap one together from scavenged materials? (4)
2. Is your bin:
a. covered and aerated, with sides and a bottom to keep out varmints? (1)
b. sealed up tighter than a drum? (2)
c. aerated, with sides and a top but no protection against small varmints? (3)
d. topless, more aerated than a wind tunnel, a haven for critters? (4)
3. When making a compost pile, do you:
a. measure amounts of carbon and nitrogen materials to add? (1)
b. layer roughly equal amounts of carbon and nitrogen materials? (2)
c. toss in carbon and nitrogen materials willy-nilly? (3)
d. know what carbon and nitrogen are? (4)
4. Before adding materials to the compost pile, do you:
a. clean out rocks, sticks, and debris, then shred piles of the different ingredients? (1)
b. chop up some materials with a lawnmower and remove debris? (2)
c. resist shredding or chopping, but do clean out debris? (3)
d. just throw everything in without shredding, chopping, or cleaning? (4)
5. When given a choice of garden chores, do you:
a. run to the compost pile to check and turn it? (1)
b. check the pile after a few other chores? (2)
c. check the pile last on your list of things to do? (3)
d. wonder where the pile is? (4)
6. How often do you turn your compost pile?
a. weekly (1)
b. monthly (2)
c. every six months (3)
d. I never touch the stuff (4)
7. How often do you take your compost's temperature?
a. daily (1)
b. weekly (2)
c. monthly (3)
d. never (4)
8. How warm does your compost get?
a. above 130oF (1)
b. above 100oF (2)
c. it never warms up (3)
d. I never check it (4)
9. When checking to see if compost is finished, do you:
a. pick it up to feel and smell it? (1)
b. generally go by the color and look (black, without large chunks)? (2)
c. never touch the stuff, just poke at it with a long stick? (3)
d. wait until the pile has shrunk to a fourth of its original size? (4)
10. Typically, you use your compost:
a. sifted to use as a potting mix, as mulch around plants, or on the lawn. (1)
b. as mulch around plants and tilled into the garden. (2)
c. just tilled into the garden. (3)
d. left as ballast in the bin. (4)
Add up your score and find your style below.
Score: Above 25 -- Au Naturel Composter
You're the heart and soul of the composting school whose motto is "Compost Happens." You tend to be passionate about the idea of composting but don't spend a lot of time designing your pile or layering and turning it. Extreme Au Naturel composters (Decomposters) just pile up garden debris in a corner and, after about two years of ignoring the pile, get usable compost. The advantages of this type of composting are that it's inexpensive and takes little time. However, the finished compost will seldom rate A-plus for quality.
To better your chances, try following some basic rules of composting. Build the pile on level, well-drained ground at least 2 feet away from trees and buildings, in the shade, and away from the garden so slugs and other pests can't use it as a refuge. To aid aeration, place a 6-inch layer of twigs at the bottom. As organic matter becomes available, add equal amounts of materials rich in carbon (straw, dried leaves, wood chips) and nitrogen (fresh weeds and grass clippings, kitchen scraps). Don't add meat and fish scraps, oils or fats, charcoal ash, plastic trash, kitty litter, diseased plants, or pernicious weeds. For a complete list of compost ingredients, check the Master Composter Web site: www.mastercomposter.com/ref/orgmat1.html.
Build the pile 3 to 5 feet high and wide, wet it, and cover it with a plastic tarp. If the pile starts to smell of ammonia and drips water when you squeeze a handful, turn it and add more carbon-rich materials. If it just sits there like a cold lump, add more nitrogen materials and check the moisture. If the pile isn't as wet as a wrung out sponge, add water, loosening the pile first to allow the water to penetrate it. If the pile heats up, you're doing great. Once it is cool to the touch, turn it, moving the outside layer to the middle and vice versa. The pile should reheat. Continue this turning process until the pile stops heating up. In a few months you should have finished compost (mostly black soil with only a little undecomposed debris, which you can add to a new pile).
Score: 20 to 24 -- White Glove Composter
You love the idea of composting but are a relative newcomer and want the process to be attractive and fairly odor- and stain-free. You'll buy a completely enclosed commercial bin so the compost pile doesn't spill into the rest of the garden. You just add materials in the top, and weeks later the finished compost comes out the bottom. The advantage of this style is tidiness: there's little fussing over the pile's makeup and the turning or monitoring of it. Varmints aren't likely to get in, and it doesn't dry out as fast as an open bin. The disadvantages are that commercial bins tend to be small, and the compost quality won't be great unless you do pay close attention to the materials added, moisture levels, turning, and aeration.
For better white glove composting, choose bins with a capacity of at least 9 cubic feet (small bins tend not to heat up as well). A barrel or tumbler-type bin can hold more material and can compost faster (as quickly as three weeks) due to more aeration. With stationary bins, it's hard to turn the pile once everything's in it, so alternate 3- to 6-inch layers of carbon and nitrogen materials; watering each layer. If the pile seems too wet or is not decomposing after a few weeks, stir the material from the top with an aerating tool or spading fork.
Score: 16 to 20 -- High-Tech Composter
You are a tool and gadget lover. You adore compost accessories almost as much as compost itself. You go for the latest, highest-tech innovations, such as composting orbs or rolling bins. The advantage of being a techie is that many of these cool tools and gadgets do help make a great pile of compost. The disadvantage is that you may not get a lot of compost because many bins are small; you may be spending a lot of money better spent elsewhere in the garden.
Let's look at some of the accessories to determine their best uses. Making compost doesn't require any of these tools and equipment, but they can make the task easier. A compost thermometer has a 1- to 3-foot-long metal probe that you stick into the middle of the pile; it registers when the pile heats up to the ideal 130oF and when it's cooling and needs to be turned. Compost activators range from chemical fertilizer to microorganisms that speed up the composting process. Although of questionable benefit, adding these when building the pile may help jump-start the composting process. Kits measure the pH of the finished compost. As long as the compost is completely decomposed, the pH should be around 7 (neutral), no matter what the pH of the original materials was. Hydrometers are metal probes that measure the pile's moisture level. A level of 60 percent is ideal for heating up the pile. Sifters can remove rocks, large chunks of soil, or undecomposed debris from finished compost. Sift the pile only if the compost will go into a potting mix or onto lawns. Chippers and shredders chop organic matter into pieces small enough to add to the pile. Generally, chopped materials decompose faster than larger pieces, so if you have lots of sunflower stalks, cornstalks, oak leaves, or tree branches, chip and shred them before adding them to the pile.
Score: Less Than 16 -- Maniacal Composter
You live and breathe compost, and will construct three beautifully designed and functional bins so you can move the compost from bin to bin instead of just turning it in a single one. You compost everything, bring in manures, steal your neighbor's leaf bags--even think of dinner in terms of the leftovers' carbon-nitrogen ratio. You check the pile daily, turn it weekly, concoct special recipes of various kinds of organic matter, and may use special tools. You spend more time with the compost pile than with the garden, family pet, car, or even your partner. Of course, the payoff is rich, beautiful compost and lots of it. The disadvantage is you don't have much of a life away from your compost piles.
Although you're already covering the bases, the following suggestion might incite you to spend even more time babying your piles. If the goal is not only quicker composting but to kill all weed seeds, roots, and plant disease organisms, you'll need to heat the pile to 150oF. To do this, the carbon-nitrogen ratio should be 30:1. You can calculate the ratio of your pile by adding the C:N ratios of the individual ingredients multiplied by the percent of each material in the pile. For example, if you have 5 pounds of leaves (C:N ratio = 40:1) and 5 pounds of grass clippings (C:N ratio = 20:1), that's (50 percent leaves x 40:1) + (50 percent grass x 20:1) = 20 + 10 = 30:1, the perfect ratio.
Believe it or not, this is a simplification of the process. If you really want to get into it, check out the Cornell University Composting Web site, http://compost.css.cornell.edu/Composting_Homepage.html. But remember to come in for dinner once in a while!
Charlie Nardozzi is a senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association.
Photography by the National Gardening Association.