Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Discover the Secret to Successful Composting

The secret to successful composting is achieving the right balance of three critical elements: organic matter, water, and air. By bringing these materials into the proper balance, you speed up the natural process of decay which makes nutrients available to plants. Composting simultaneously achieves two of the fundamental objectives of organic gardening: recycling materials and enriching the soil. Selecting materials There are two types of organic matter that must be included in your compost pile: "browns" and "greens". "Brown" materials are high in carbon and "green" materials are high in nitrogen. Examples of 'browns' include twigs and small branches, dead leaves in the fall, old hay or mulch, dry and dead plant materials such as straw, dry brown weeds, and wood chips or sawdust. "Greens" includes fresh (and often green) plant materials such as green weeds from the garden, kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, grass clippings, and yard waste from dead heading or trimming plants. The greener the material, the higher the nitrogen content. A good mix of browns and greens is the best nutritional balance. By including a greater variety of materials included in your compost, you will be more likely to create a nutritionally balanced product. Mineral supplements like rock phosphate and greensand can be added to the pile to tailor your compost to the needs of your plants and to your particular gardening conditions. Although some gardeners use lime to raise the pH of their compost and to help reduce odors, lime can facilitate the release of ammonia into the atmosphere, reducing the nitrogen content of your compost. You can use eggshells, bone meal, or wood ashes to provide the calcium supplied by lime without sacrificing nitrogen. Wood ashes will provide potash as well, but use them in moderation to avoid high pH levels that could interfere with microorganism activity or some plants' ability to absorb nutrients.

While anything of living origin can be composted, the following items should NEVER be added to a compost pile:

  • Cat and dog manures
  • Noxious perennial weeds
  • Kitchen scraps containing meat, dairy products, or grease
  • Any plants treated with pesticide or herbicide


For thorough decomposition to occur, an adequate supply of air must reach all parts of the pile. The most common aerating technique is to turn the compost pile about once or twice a month. The process of decay can generate a lot of heat, creating temperatures up to 150° F inside a well-aerated and well-constructed compost pile. This high heat is crucial for killing any weed seeds and pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and for accelerating the process of decay. Monitor the temperature of your compost pile with a compost thermometer. Turn the pile again after the temperature has peaked and the pile has begun to cool down.

You can also aerate your compost pile using the following methods:

Use a pallet or other structure to raise the pile to allow air to penetrate from the bottom. You can also put sticks into the pile as you are building it. After building, pull out the sticks and you have ready made air shafts! By poking holes into your pile with a crowbar or garden fork will also provide aeration.

  • Shred materials like leaves, hay and grass prior to adding them to the pile. Use materials that can become matted (like paper and grass clippings) sparingly.
  • Periodically poke holes in the pile with a garden fork or compost aerator.


Water is also vital to sustain the microorganisms that make composting possible. However, a compost pile that is too wet inferes with aeration, drowns the beneficial organisms, and leaches out nutrients. Properly moistened compost should be about as damp as a wet sponge. Follow these guidelines to maintain the appropriate moisture levels in your compost pile:
  • Locate your pile on a well-drained site. Construct a base of gravel, sand, or other coarse material, if necessary, to ensure the pile does not stand in water.
  • Sprinkle each layer with water as you construct the pile.
  • Check moisture levels every few days; if needed, add moisture whenever you turn the pile.
  • Layer wet materials with dry, absorbent materials.
  • Turn the pile periodically to release excess moisture.
  • Protect your pile from excessively wet or dry weather by enclosing it in a covered bin or topping it with a layer of hay or straw.
  • In humid climates, construct your pile so it has a rounded top to repel moisture. In dry climates, create a sunken top to collect water.
Locating your compost pileBefore building your pile, it is important to consider where you will locate your compost pile and how you will construct it. Providing an enclosure for your pile is not essential as long as the pile is at least a cubic yard in volume (3 ft by 3 ft by 3 ft). However, structures have the advantages of protecting your compost from adverse weather and pests, conserving heat, and creating a more attractive appearance. Position your pile or enclosure where it will be protected from drying winds in the winter and hot sun in the summer. In general, the more exposed the location for the pile, the more watering will be necessary to maintain adequate moisture levels.

Building your compost pileThe simplest way to ensure the correct carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is to alternate layers of high-carbon material with layers of high-nitrogen material when constructing your compost pile. In general, a number of thin layers will allow for more efficient decomposition than a few thick layers.

Follow these simple steps to build an efficient, low-maintenance compost pile:

Loosen the soil at the site you have chosen for your compost pile.
  1. Make a base of coarse material to facilitate aeration and drainage. Water this layer.
  2. Alternate 3 - 4" layers between Green (high Nitrogen) and Brown (high Carbon) materials. Water.
  3. Any materials that could mat or putrefy should be mixed with drier materials, like straw or sawdust, and kept in thin layers no more than 1 to 2 inches thick.
  4. Add a half-inch layer of soil on top of the high-nitrogen layer to inoculate the pile with the appropriate microorganisms. This soil layer will reduce the leaching of mineral nutrients and trap escaping nitrogen gas. Water.
  5. Continue to repeat the layering process in this fashion until the pile is about 3 feet high. Be sure to water each layer, except for those layers composed of wet materials like kitchen scraps.
  6. Cap the finished pile with 2-3 inches of soil.
  7. Turn the pile once or twice a month to aerate it and release excess moisture. Add Compost Bio-Activator before turning to introduce beneficial microorganisms that will keep the decomposition process active.
  8. Water the pile as needed to maintain appropriate moisture levels.
  9. Cover the pile with a thick layer of straw in winter to maintain proper moisture and temperature levels.


Anonymous said...

I live in Florida and it seems not too many compost here, but it should be good. I am buying the Envirocycle Composter and would like some directions on its use here in Florida. Any help will be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

You have to get the right combination of dry goods, and wet goods in the composter to make it work well. The Envirocycle comes with tips on how to compost. You can also check out this site:
www.espoma.com. They are a wealth of knowledge about composting and other organic gardening techniques.