Soil and Compost forum: Composting for Beginners

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Name: Alo Konsen
Greater Cleveland, OH (Zone 5b)
Charter ATP Member
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PuddlePirate
Jul 14, 2011 11:01 PM CST
Oil isn't black gold. Compost is.

It improves just about any soil you add it to, makes plants healthier, discourages pathogens in the soil, moderates swings in soil temperature/pH/moisture, prevents erosion and water runoff, reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, prolongs the availability of whatever fertilizers you do use, and reverses male pattern baldness. OK, that last one isn't true. I think.

Unfortunately buying finished compost at your local big box store or garden center gets expensive, and occasionally the quality of the stuff can be underwhelming. So you want to start making compost instead of buying it, but you're worried that it'll be too much trouble, huh? Cheer up! Composting doesn't have to be complicated, scientifically rigorous, or closely monitored. It isn't guaranteed to be messy and smelly. You don't have to primp and fuss over a compost pile if you don't want to. Most of the in-depth discussion among us composting nerds is geared toward getting finished compost as fast as possible. You don't have to do things my way or anybody else's way. Take whatever raw materials you have, put 'em in contact with the soil, cover 'em, and you'll get compost soon enough.

Just about anything that used to be alive -- or that's made from something that used to be alive -- will rot eventually. It's really that simple.

- Begin compost geekery -

If you absolutely need to make good compost as fast as you can, then you want a hot pile (or bin). That'll require the right ratio of carbon and nitrogen in your finely-chopped or -shredded raw materials, the right amounts of oxygen and water, and a big enough pile to generate and retain the heat that kills pathogens and weed seeds.

The ratio of C:N (a.k.a. "browns and greens") should be roughly 30:1 by weight. The list of raw materials and the compost mix calculator below will help you figure out the C:N ratio of your own refuse. If the carbon side of the ratio gets too high, the pile won't cook. If the nitrogen side of the ratio gets too high, the pile will get ridiculously hot, and too much of that valuable nitrogen will leave the pile in the form of disgustingly stinky ammonia gas.

To keep the pile aerated properly, you can either flip the materials over periodically, use a compost aerator tool, build the pile with some perforated pipes running into it, or leave enough sticks and coarse material mixed in that you get air pockets. If you get a big pile going, but neglect to aerate it enough, it'll go anaerobic. That means that bacteria that live in low-oxygen environments will crowd out the others, which is not fun for your neighbors. Anaerobic decomposition just plain reeks. Think "swamp." If you go too crazy with aerating your pile, you'll let too much heat escape into the air and your pile won't kill pathogens and weed seeds as effectively.

The ideal moisture content is much like a lightly wrung out sponge. Without water, decomposition slows to a crawl. With too much water you'll get a cold, wet, stinky, anaerobic mess.

To retain enough heat to get the aerobic bacteria working at peak efficiency, your pile will need to measure at least 4x4x4 feet. You can get compost to cook in smaller piles, but it'll require insulation and a lot more attention. If you build an uninsulated pile that's smaller than about 20 cubic feet, you're going to have a really hard time getting it to heat up.

The rule of thumb for a hot pile is "shoot for a steady temperature above ~130F." It'll take a perfect new pile a few days to get there, and it won't stay that hot forever, but that's the magic temperature for hot composting. The pile will shrink as the raw materials decompose, and the temperature will begin to tail off after a day or so at peak heat. When things begin to cool off, just aerate the pile, mix the raw materials on the edges into the core, re-moisten if needed, and let it heat up again.

I've been able to get a big pile to heat up three times, but that's about all I can expect. A different bunch of bacteria, plus fungi, insects, and worms will take over when the pile cools a bit, and they'll continue breaking things down. Eventually you'll be left with crumbly black gold. Depending on how intently you babysit your pile, you can get finished compost in a couple of weeks.

- End compost geekery -

You DON'T have to do it that way! If you're willing to be patient, you can get compost without going to the trouble of building a hot pile.

For example, I have a Biostack bin that I use for hot composting a very wide variety of organic matter and rock dust; its finished compost goes onto my veggie garden. However, I also have a big, mostly-neglected cold pile that generates compost for my ornamental plants and my lawn. I start a new cold pile in the middle of summer with bags of shredded office paper and junk mail, bags of grass clippings, bags of fallen leaves from the year before, uprooted weeds that haven't yet gone to seed, wood ashes from my fireplace, used potting mix, shredded trimmings from bushes and trees that have just been pruned, whatever nasty hunks of clay I've got left over from that year's planting holes, and a handful of finished compost. It all goes in a big ol' pile that's about 4x3x12, after which it gets watered, and then it gets left. For a year. It takes awhile, and weeds tend to grow on top, but it eventually shrinks down to pretty decent compost. It almost never gets hot enough to kill every last weed seed, but I don't care. In early summer when it's almost done, I flip it once. That puts the weeds growing on top down inside the pile, and exposes any viable seeds to the air so they can germinate. Those weeds get plucked as they sprout, and about two weeks later I've got decent (if a bit chunky) compost. I've actually started growing cover crops on top of my cold pile to crowd out opportunistic weeds, provide "green manure," and prevent nutrients from leaching away in the rain and snow. So far buckwheat and clover make a good mix.

There are a million other ways to compost. You can use worms. You can use the Bokashi method, which intentionally uses anaerobic bacteria in a sealed container to ferment kitchen scraps into compost. You can spot compost, which involves burying small amounts of raw materials wherever the soil needs improving. Trench composting is spot composting on a larger scale. Some people make biochar, which involves making charcoal, soaking it in compost tea or fish emulsion, drying it, crushing it, then incorporating the powdered charcoal into the soil. Farmers near my home compost giant piles of sawdust from their stables that's mixed with the manure of their alpacas, horses, or goats. Soiled straw bedding from rabbit hutches and chicken coops can really heat up if left in a pile. Other people do sheet composting, where mats of grass clippings and shredded leaves form a mulch that slowly decomposes in place. If you can't make enough compost to meet your needs, you can stretch what you've got by making compost tea and watering your plants with it. A few brave souls even compost otherwise dangerous stuff like roadkill, pet poop, grease, and whatever else falls into their clutches ... but their methods are not for the faint of heart (or stomach). There is no "right way" to compost.

Enough bloviating from me. I'll wrap things up with a few links, which I'll add to as needed:

8 steps to smart gardening: http://www.hgtv.com/landscaping/8-steps-to-smart-gardening/i...
General tips: http://www.youtube.com/user/pauljamesgardenerguy#p/a/u/5/VKx...
A quick & dirty (soil-y?) handbook for home composting: http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edComm/pdf/CIS/CIS1066.pdf
"Can I compost this?": http://www.compostthis.co.uk/
No-frills composting: http://www.hgtv.com/landscaping/making-compost/index.html
Cover crop usage: http://www.seedsofchange.com/enewsletter/issue_46/cover_crop...
Cover crop guide: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/bjorkman/lab/covercrops/index.ph...
List of raw materials: http://compost.css.cornell.edu/OnFarmHandbook/apa.taba1.html
Compost mix calculator: http://www.klickitatcounty.org/SolidWaste/fileshtml/organics...
Cornell University's in-depth composting handbook: http://compost.css.cornell.edu/OnFarmHandbook/onfarm_TOC.htm...
Do-It-Yourself compost projects: http://www.instructables.com/tag/type-id/category-workshop/c...
How to build new topsoil: http://managingwholes.com/new-topsoil.htm
The soil food web: http://oregonfoodweb.com/
Surprising facts about weeds: http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/weeds/WeedsToC.html

Your turn!
[Last edited by PuddlePirate - Jul 15, 2011 11:58 PM (+)]
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Name: Dahlianut
Calgary, AB Zone 3a
NE Alumni
Charter ATP Member Garden Ideas: Level 2 Seed Starter Region: Canadian Irises Daylilies
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dahlianut
Jul 15, 2011 6:17 AM CST
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray! Good stuff geekery PuddleP Hurray! Hurray! Hurray! My compost is a big hole in the ground behind a big mayday tree and the worms do the turning/stirring for me Smiling
Name: Jamie R
Zone 5b, WI (Zone 5a)
save the rainforest & habitat
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JaeRae
Jul 15, 2011 6:47 AM CST
Hurray! Thanks...lots of good links!
Woman on the eastbound train
...........................................Je Suis Désolé.
(also a mule lovin', Charley huggin' girl)
Name: Doug
Bardstown KY (Zone 6a)
Charter ATP Member Region: Kentucky Ferns Hellebores Heucheras Hostas
Garden Ideas: Level 2
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postmandug
Jul 15, 2011 9:00 AM CST
Way to go PP. I knew you'd jump right in here; and fit right in!

Doug
Name: Red
Knoxville, TN
Charter ATP Member Region: Tennessee Region: Georgia Garden Art Cat Lover Butterflies
Seed Starter Container Gardener Plant and/or Seed Trader Ferns Irises Bulbs
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knoxred
Jul 15, 2011 11:51 AM CST
Fantastic primer on composting. Thanks, PP.
Name: Alo Konsen
Greater Cleveland, OH (Zone 5b)
Charter ATP Member
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PuddlePirate
Jul 15, 2011 12:13 PM CST
Hi. My name is Alo, and I'm a compostaholic.
Name: Dahlianut
Calgary, AB Zone 3a
NE Alumni
Charter ATP Member Garden Ideas: Level 2 Seed Starter Region: Canadian Irises Daylilies
Lilies Bulbs Garden Art Birds Hummingbirder Region: Northeast US
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dahlianut
Jul 15, 2011 12:28 PM CST
Big Grin
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Jul 15, 2011 3:58 PM CST
Hi Alo. I'm glad there's 12-step program for compostaholics.

I agree with everything you said: fast or slow, it all decays and it all feeds the soil.

Here's a direct link for a table of carbon/nitrogen ratios of common raw materials. It's part of a whole website devoted to compost.

http://www.composting101.com/c-n-ratio.html

Corey
Name: leaflady
planet earth
Love the sinner, hate the sin
Charter ATP Member
leaflady
Jul 15, 2011 10:08 PM CST
My DH & I use to volunteer at a botanical garden and were allowed to bring home 'spent' potting soil, plant clippings, etc. I would put it all under the domestic bunny cages and let the banty chickens have free access to it. They did all the turning and mixing for us. In a few weeks we had blk. gold to use in the yarden. Nice and loose because it was largely based on commercial potting soil which is mostly peat and vermiculite. I tried to get some of the dirt underneath mixed in but often had to go elsewhere on the farm for 'real dirt'. There were usually tons of worms in there too. Too many for the poultry to eat.
Name: Alo Konsen
Greater Cleveland, OH (Zone 5b)
Charter ATP Member
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PuddlePirate
Jul 15, 2011 10:41 PM CST
That's a heckuva cool system, leaflady. This flinty cheapskate's heart almost felt a warm fuzzy. If I had rabbits or chickens I'd try it. Sadly the local secret police -- um, I mean, homeowners' association -- frowns upon that sort of thing.
Name: Dahlianut
Calgary, AB Zone 3a
NE Alumni
Charter ATP Member Garden Ideas: Level 2 Seed Starter Region: Canadian Irises Daylilies
Lilies Bulbs Garden Art Birds Hummingbirder Region: Northeast US
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dahlianut
Jul 16, 2011 4:21 AM CST
Don't get me started about the urbanic plot on chickens? Grumbling
Name: leaflady
planet earth
Love the sinner, hate the sin
Charter ATP Member
leaflady
Jul 16, 2011 3:11 PM CST
Is it all chickens or just no roosters? I'm so thankful to be living in a rural setting where I can have my critters.
Name: Marylyn
Houston, TX (Zone 9a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I sent a postcard to Randy! Region: Texas Daylilies Lilies
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Marylyn
Jul 16, 2011 4:20 PM CST
We can't have any poultry. I sure wish we could! Thank you for the compost "geekery", Alo. I should try again...
Name: Alo Konsen
Greater Cleveland, OH (Zone 5b)
Charter ATP Member
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PuddlePirate
Jul 16, 2011 5:44 PM CST
Happy to be of some help, Marylyn.
Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
Charter ATP Member Celebrating Gardening: 2015 I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped beta test the first seed swap Region: United States of America Region: Michigan
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Weedwhacker
Jul 16, 2011 10:09 PM CST
Everything above is true, but...

it really need not be that complicated, and I think this put many people off trying to make a compost pile!

we collect some grass clippings when we mow the lawn.. throw them in a pile on the ground and they'll start heating up. Start adding your kitchen veg scraps and weeds from the garden, and throw some more lawn clippings on. Get some "compost starter" from a local nursery or a garden catalog and add it into the mix. More kitchen scraps, more weeds, more lawn clippings. Keep going that way through the summer and fall, let it sit through the winter, turn it over, mix it up, and before you know it... you have fabulous compost. Or just pile up everything that you have and a couple of years later, without any assistance, it will rot and be great compost. Let it rot! Smiling
"Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself, for he shall never cease to be entertained."
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Name: Alo Konsen
Greater Cleveland, OH (Zone 5b)
Charter ATP Member
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PuddlePirate
Jul 16, 2011 10:15 PM CST
Exactly my point. :)
Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
Charter ATP Member Celebrating Gardening: 2015 I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped beta test the first seed swap Region: United States of America Region: Michigan
Seed Starter Vegetable Grower Birds Butterflies Dog Lover Cat Lover
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Weedwhacker
Jul 16, 2011 10:32 PM CST
I knew it was! Smiling
"Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself, for he shall never cease to be entertained."
- John Powell / Cubits.org - A Universe of Communities
/ Share your recipes: Favorite Recipes A-Z cubit
C/F temp conversion / NGA Member Map
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Aug 25, 2011 3:38 PM CST
I've read some people say NOT to compost meat, grease or dairy.

I started scraping the tiny cat food scraps my cat left in his bowl into the tubs where I save coffee grounds & filters & a few vegetable scraps for composting. No obvious problems.

Then I had 4 hot dogs get too old to eat, chopped them fine and added them to the compost piles as well. No obvious problems - in fact, checking after a few weeks, I couldn;t tell where the hot dogs had been.

It is a tiny, slow, cold pile, but when I added the hot dogs, I scrounged aorund for more things to throw on top (dried clover vines and bolting Bok Choy).

I saw no evidence that I had attracted any rodents: the pile seemed undisturbed.

Does anyone know other reasons to avoid meat, grease or dairy in a compost heap? Mine cooks so slowly that I only use it every other year or so.

Name: Marylyn
Houston, TX (Zone 9a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I sent a postcard to Randy! Region: Texas Daylilies Lilies
Cat Lover Garden Ideas: Level 1
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Marylyn
Aug 25, 2011 4:00 PM CST
I think it has to do with bacteria, but there was an article on DG by summerkid about composting practically anything - including roadkill. Sticking tongue out http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1385/
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Aug 25, 2011 4:02 PM CST
That is a good article. Her pile sounds like it's 10-20 times bigger than mine.

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