Composting can provide many benefits to the home gardener – improving soil, saving landfill space, and saving the home gardener some money. Getting started with composting is not difficult, but requires some planning. Here are some things to consider.
First choose a level spot near the garden and near a water source. The location needs to give the home gardener room to stockpile materials and to be able to physically mix the pile.Position the compost pile so that it is accessible from all sides so it will be easier to turn the contents. Avoid locations near wells. You may choose a location in the shade or in the sun. Place it out of view if possible.
Composting can be done in a bin or in an open pile. The pile should be 3-feet wide, 3-feet tall, and 3-feet deep in order to produce enough internal heat to aid with decomposition.
A few tools are needed such as: a compost fork or aerator, cutting tools such as a pruner, and a hose or a watering can. Composting materials need to be cut into small pieces so they can decompose faster. The compost pile needs to be kept moist, compare the moisture level to that of a wrung-out sponge or a damp rag.
Gather organic materials. Organic matter for composting can be grouped into two broad categories, green materials and brown materials.
• Green materials, (“greens”) are high in moisture and nitrogen. Some examples of greens are: fresh grass clippings, kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps, garden clippings, manure, and weeds.
• Brown materials, (“browns”) are high in carbon, low in moisture, and slow to break down. Browns include: fallen leaves, straw, wood chips, dead plant materials, paper, and corrugated cardboard.
A proper blending of greens and browns allows microbes to work more efficiently. Cut and shred all materials into smaller pieces to aid in the decomposition process.
The C/N Ratio
A proper blending of greens and browns aids with the composting process. Everything organic has a ratio of carbon to nitrogen. The C/N ratio refers to the amount of carbon (C ) and nitrogen (N) in materials that are added to a compost pile. The preferred ratio in a compost pile is about 30:1. The ratio of 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen can help achieve a balance in a compost pile.
Set Up Pile
Start with a layer of 6 inch browns. Water well. Then sprinkle a 2 inch layer of greens. Water that well. Finally add a 2 inch layer of soil. Mix the layers together. Continue to add layers to get a ratio of browns to greens at 2:1. Each week check the water content by squeezing a handful of the mixture. Look for a few drops of water to be released. Add and mix layers of browns and greens until desired height reached.
Manage the Compost Pile
Turn the pile weekly. Be sure to mix it well. This ensures microbes have air and water they need to do their work. After three or four months the compost will become dark and crumbly with a smell like fresh dirt. It will no longer be hot in the center. It is now called finished compost. Finished compost can be used as a soil amendment. Cover finished compost to prevent nutrients from leaching out of it.
Be careful not to use unfinished compost. Use of unfinished compost may compete with plants for nitrogen in the soil causing yellowing or stunted growth. Unfinished compost has been found to slow both germination and the growth of seedlings.
Composting is a natural process. If the compost pile is carefully managed, the home gardener can get useful finished compost from relatively little effort.