Compost is not rocket science. Compost, or the act of decomposition, will happen with or without your help, it’s just a matter of time. Humans have been formally composting for a couple thousand years; so why all the apprehension and fuss today?
First, why compost? The two biggest reasons are: to create your own free amazing soil amendment, and to avoid greenhouse gas pollution by keeping food and yard waste out of the landfill.
If you want to get involved in composting, here are a few things you should know. Firstly, four things are necessary for composting – carbon, nitrogen, air, and water. The idea is to create an optimal environment so all the critters can work their fastest. Paying some extra attention to this ideal environment will keep these critters happy and expedite the process, but either way…compost happens.
For optimal composting, the pile should be between 3x3x3’ to 5x5x5’ – any larger and air can’t get to the middle so the critters can breathe, any smaller and the heat-loving critters cannot heat up the pile. The ideal temperature should be between 90º-140º. If you are looking to kill pathogens and destroy seeds, the temperature should exceed 140º. This temperature won’t happen in winter, but go ahead and keep adding to your pile and it will kick off again in springtime!
The compost container can be anything including: a plain plastic bin with a locking lid, an open slatted box, a self contained tumbler, or even a hole in the ground. It doesn’t have to be a spaceship!
Aeration, or stirring or flipping your pile, speeds things up by providing oxygen to the critters and moving the middle to the outside and the outside to the middle. This allows the heat loving critters to do their thing in the middle of the pile where it is the hottest. Also, a moist pile is ideal since critters get thirsty too. Aim for a pile that is not too dry, not too wet – think damp sponge.
So what can go into your compost bin? Just about any plant based material, which includes paper and cardboard since they are made from trees! Dairy, fats, meat, and bones should be omitted mostly due to the unwanted flies and wildlife they attract and the heat needed to break them down. The smaller the size of items you add to your pile, the faster it will turn into compost. So, chop up that watermelon rind!
Getting the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio seems the most daunting to newbies. Also called browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen), the basic rule is half and half by volume, or more browns than greens. Too many greens creates the “garbage” odor, and too many browns will slow the process down. Some people layer their browns and greens, but it really isn’t necessary since everything is mixed up with aeration. You would be surprised by the huge variety of “things” that can be composted. A search online will give you lists of well over 100 things you can compost.
To help start the compost, all you need is a couple handfuls of dirt thrown on the pile. No need to buy fancy “starters”, as Mother Nature provides all the billions of microbes necessary for a compost pile with just a handful of good soil. Plus. the necessary organisms find their way to the compost pile through the ground.
If you create ideal conditions for your compost pile, you will have finished compost or “black gold” within two to four weeks. At some point you should stop adding to your pile if you want a uniformed finished product, so you might have to create another pile or a temporary holding place for your other kitchen scraps.
No matter what your goals are for composting – quick soil amendment or keeping household waste lean and mean – these basics will get you well on your way. Composting is kind of magical when you really think about it. It’s even better than rocket science, so have some fun!
by Deborah de Moulpied, Bona Fide Green Goods
GET Aug2011 page 37