Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Composting: The Basics

Nature composts everyday, and without much trouble, which is why it is so frustrating when our concentrated human efforts at composting are thwarted. However, with a solid understanding of the basics and a few simple trouble-shooting tricks up your sleeve, composting is an attainable goal for everyone. This simple guide will get you started.

To compost you need material, a place to put it, and time to wait for it to break down. That's it. There are a lot of things you can do to help the process along though. The first of these is to provide the right ratio of material. Compost needs carbon and nitrogen in about a 30:1 ratio. Don't worry about getting this exactly: successful compost can be made by using the brown/green ratio of two to one. Brown material, or your main sources of carbon, are dead (or brown) plant material, cardboard, newspaper, and wood chips. Green material, or your main sources of nitrogen, are green or moist things such as lawn trimmings, food scraps, poop, urine, and fresh plant material. If you keep a two to one ratio of brown to green, and pile materials in layers of no more than six inches thick, within a year you'll have compost.

If a big messy pile of what can easily be considered garbage isn't your thing, then you'll find a compost container to be a gift from the heavens. A compost container keeps larger pests from rooting through the material, shelters the compost from gentle or judgmental eyes, and helps contain heat which aids in the breakdown of material and pathogens. More practically, a bin keeps your compost contained and can help you see when it's time to turn the material. Some composters don't advocate turning the pile, but I find that it greatly enhances the composting process. When you have a container, you don't have compost being spread around, and when you do turn your compost, you have a clearly designated place to deposit the material as you turn it.

A compost container, at its most basic, just needs to be a tall, rectangular box. You're welcome to leave the compost in there until it's totally broken down, but I recommend being able to lift the box in order to turn the compost. If you can lift the box up, either all at once or in sections, you can put it down right next to the pile, then use a shovel, fork, or scoop to transfer the pile back into the box from the top down, thus completely turning the material. A standard composting unit can be found at any hardware store. These types are usually either one solid piece of round plastic with a lid, or four pieces of plastic that are bolted or screwed together then topped with a lid.

You can easily build your own composting container out of wood, storage totes, old garbage bins, or even bales of straw. The straw bales are best set up in a 'W' formation; this allows you to shovel the compost pile from one section to the other without having to move the heavy bales. The rest of the materials mentioned can just set up to make a bin. You'll need to cut the bottom out of plastic storage totes or garbage bins, as interaction with the ground is handy for bacteria formation, but if you have a round garbage can with a secure lid you could leave the whole deal intact and make yourself a rolling composter, thus eliminating the need to turn the pile. Flat boards (ideally six inches or wider) can be assemble to make four to six boxes which stack on top of each other. Then, when it's time to turn the compost, you simply take the top box off, place it on the ground next to the existing pile, then turn any existing material into it, then place the second box on top of the first, and continue the pattern until the entire stack is reversed, and all the material has been turned. Additionally, you can just use scrap lumber and stack the boards up Lincoln Log style to make a box to hold the compost in.

The current contents of my composting bin.

No matter what container, if anything at all, you use to contain your compost, you're going to need to be patient while all the bacteria do their work and break down old vegetable peelings, crumpled newspaper, dead leaves, bits of cotton and wool yarn (knitters raise your hands), plant trimmings, and coffee grounds into organic, rich fertilizer for your garden that turns toxins inert, neutralizes pathogens, and returns vital nutrients to the soil.

Taking steps such as shredding your compost material, insulating your compost bin, and purposely adding beneficial bacteria can all speed up the composting process; there are internet citizens who claim that such tactics have cut their composting time down to six weeks. I have not tried such methods, but I have found that it is possible to make compost in less than four months in the summer time as long as nothing you put in the bin is more than an inch thick in any direction. This means cutting tree trimmings down to less than one inch in length, breaking up food scraps to less than one inch in diameter, and ensuring that even though all your compost is made of relatively tiny materials it's still properly aerated.

The basic logic behind the tiny diameter policy is that the smaller the material added to the bin, the larger the surface area the bacteria has to work on. No matter what you do right or wrong when composting, bacteria will show up and eat away at whatever it is you put in the pile. If there's not enough air pockets in the pile, anaerobic bacteria will show up and do their work, but the pile will stink. If the pile is big enough and properly balanced, thermophilic bacteria will heat up the pile and break down a large amount of material in a small amount of time. If the pile is small but well-balanced, bacteria will move in and slowly break down the material, and eventually earthworms, slugs, and other slimy things will move in and further break down the material.

The point is, no matter how bad your composting technique is, your pile will eventually break down into the brown, beautiful, crumbly material that is so coveted by gardeners everywhere. There are plenty of things you can do besides feeding your compost pile right, covering it in style, and giving it enough time to do its work, but those are topics for later posts, so for now, just start by piling all your organic, biodegradable material into a container of some sort, and letting it slip your mind, something most people can do without any trouble at all, which is really all any compost takes.

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