Making Your Own Compost

By Western Farm Center Travel, Nature

Why should I compost?

Composting yard debris, fruit peelings, and leftover vegetable scraps from the kitchen have a variety of benefits. It is a great way to reintroduce much needed nitrogen and carbon into the soil (mixed in or as a topsoil mulch) that plants need for healthy growth. Composting also helps our environment by reducing the amount of solid waste going to our landfills and is great as an amendment to soils that are sandy or heavy with clay.

What is it?

Composting occurs when micro-organisms break down organic matter such as dead leaves, garden weeds, lawn clippings, and kitchen waste. Compost, unlike humus is not completely decomposed and should contain small pieces of recognizable matter such as twigs, bark, or leaves. These help keep the soil aerated and continue to add nutrients as they break down further.

What can I put in my compost pile?

A mix of fresh green materials and dry brown materials are needed to successfully feed the micro-organisms that are present and start the breakdown process. The green materials which include fruit peelings, lawn clippings, green weeds or garden clipping, farm animal manure, and kitchen vegetable scraps are all very rich in nitrogen, banana peels are a great source of potasium. while the dry brown materials such as dry leaves, shredded paper products, twigs and branches add a lot of carbon to the pile.

Be mindful of what types of materials you add though because some take a longer time or higher temperatures to successfully break down. Branches and twigs larger than ¼ inch should be run through a shredder or chipper first, and leaves that are waxy looking usually should be shredded as well. Manures are great as long as they come from herbivores (cows, horses, rabbit, etc) but carnivore waste should be avoided because of the possibility of carrying disease. Weeds that have a lot of seeds, diseased plants, or plants with roots infested with nematodes should be avoided because it takes a higher temperature, around 130°-140° to destroy these nuisances. Adding too much citrus or onions will drive off earth worms. And meaty, oily, or foods with a lot of fat should usually be avoided as well do to the fact it will attract animals to dig in your pile and can smell quite bad. There are also other beneficial things to add such as egg shells (make sure to wash them and crush them) which add much needed calcium for fast growing plants, and earthworms are useful towards the end of the composting stage (the pile is too warm for them in the beginning)

Building a compost pile

Buying a pre-made unit or building your own makes no difference in the outcome of your compost. Organic material is going to break down no matter what, but we do our best to create “ideal” conditions. The most important feature is the pile be a minimum of 36”x36”x36” but there are a few things to keep in mind. Do you want to screen it from the neighbors view? Is it in a protected area safe from drying winds? Can it be reached by a hose? Having it in a shady are has the benefit making it more comfortable for you while working your pile but lowers the internal temperature of the pile causing the process to take longer.

But ultimately supplying the micro-organisms food, water, and oxygen is the name of the game! Microbial activity is affected by the proportion of carbon to nitrogen. The optimum C/N ratio for composting “rapidly” is 30/1 or less, that’s 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, the higher the percentage the longer it takes to breakdown. Here’s a few common materials found in a compost pile and their associated C/N ratio.

To build the pile, layer equal amounts of dry brown material and fresh green material in alternating layers 3 to 4 inches in depth until the pile is about 3 feet, the finer the material is chopped the faster decomposition. Water each layer as you build your pile otherwise the moisture will never reach the center of the pile. The materials should be moist but not soggy, compost starters are helpful but not necessary because most yard and household waste naturally contains enough micro-organisms to drive the decomposition process.

Leaves 60:1
Straw 100:1
Lawn clippings 20:1
Sawdust 600:1
Rotting manure 20:1
Kitchen scraps 15:1
Fruit wastes 35:1

Maintaining your pile

Your newly created pile is going to heat up very quickly due to the microbial activity, the pile will cool down as the oxygen level decreases and the microbes become less active which takes about 4-7 days. At this point use a shovel or pitchfork to turn your compost pile to aerate and get the cooler outer materials into the warmer center and start the heating process again. You may need to add more water if the mix appears too dry. A compost pile that is not turned will still decompose but it takes much much longer. And don’t fret when you see all the steam coming off the pile as you turn it, that’s completely normal. If the pile is turned and watered regularly you can expect it to be ready in roughly 6-7 weeks