Composting - Knowledgebase Question

Olivia, MN
Avatar for schollj
Question by schollj
December 13, 1997
I would like to start composting but know nothing as to how to get started. I've heard temperature is an ingredient as well and we live in central Minnesota. Our soils here are heavy black (compacts easily) and I believe adding compost would aid gardening. Please tell me how to get started for a beginner.

Answer from NGA
December 13, 1997
Good for you! You are going to be thrilled when you have your very first batch of "Black Gold"! You are absolutely right, adding organic material will certainly improve your heavy Minnesota soil. My first recommendation is a book..."Let ItRot" by Stu Campbell. It is a wealth of information for anyone interested in composting. Lots of tips on whats, hows, whens, etc.

In my opinion, late summer/fall are the best times to start a compost heap. Why? For a compost heap to workefficiently you need the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen (approx. 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen). Don't worry--it doesn't have to be exact! We commonly refer to this as "green stuff" (nitrogen) and "brown stuff" (carbon). During late summer/fall we have an abundance of grass clippings, weeds, vegetable waste (green stuff) and fallen leaves, straw, cornstalks (brown stuff). Just remember, it's best to layer a bit of "green stuff" in between larger layers of "brown stuff"!

You need enough material starting out to form a pile at least 3' x 3'. Smaller piles may not heat efficiently. Also, by starting in the fall, weed seed becomes sufficiently moist to swell, freeze and be destroyed over the winter months.
There are all sorts of ways to construct your compost pile--a pile/heap, pit, container, ready made "composter", etc. There are many choices, each withadvantages/disadvantages. I've had success simply taking some chicken wire (or hardware cloth) and forming it into a cylinder, then setting it right next to the garden.

You are right, temperature does affect composting but generally that refers to the temperature inside the pile. Different people use different numbers but you are looking for your pile to reach a temperature of 90-140F inside the pile. This doesn't mean you can't have a pile in a colder region like Minnesota, the heat is generated as decomposition occurs and microbes go to work. This hot temperature range is favorable to the most efficient microbes...the ones that do most of the work. (You don't want a temperature much higher than approx. 158F because higher than that for prolonged periods can destroy beneficial bacteria and fungi.)

This really isn't as complicated as it sounds--we composters are an enthusiastic lot and love to spread the word!

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