Compost is Mother Nature’s own form of bioremediation. Our world has been blessed with microorganisms that turn organic matter into soil hummus. You can take all of the yard waste, kitchen scraps, recyclable paper products and turn them into food for your garden. Before we get into how to compost lets first take a look at how the composting process works, what types of things can be composted, and the benefits of compost. After you understand the process you will be able to design and build your own compost “pile”.
When organic components of a proper mixture of carbon and nitrogen combine in sufficient volume it fosters an environment suitable for the growth of aerobic microorganisms. As these microorganisms break down the material heat is produced as a byproduct. It is a common misnomer that you need to heat a compost pile, when in reality the heat is a product of a properly functioning compost pile. In other words, combine enough lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, and old news papers and you will eventually be left with a warm pile of rich black dirt. There are three key factors in making compost and those are the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen, ensuring that you have an adequate volume of materials, and aerating the compost pile.
The correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 30:1. Typically the carbon comes from brown components such as dead leaves, newspaper, and wood chips. The nitrogen comes from green components such as fresh cut grass, kitchen scraps, and manure. Each component has its own ratio so it isn’t as simple as placing 30lbs of leaves with 1lb of kitchen scraps. Remember that it is important to get the ratio right but Mother Nature can be quite forgiving, as long as you get it close you will be in the business of making dirt. Below is a listing of common brown and green materials.
Sawdust (do not use saw dust from chemically treated wood)
Urine (if your pile needs some nitrogen this can be a quick easy source)
Honestly just about everything can be composted, but if you plan on using the finished product in a garden there are some items you should stay away from. Dairy products, solid waste, and any manmade synthetic materials should be avoided. Many composting guides recommend not including any type of meat in a compost pile. I will give you some more information and leave the decision up to you. The common reason against meat products is that they will attract pests. If your pile is far enough away from your home some flies shouldn’t be a problem. If you have a significant volume of material it will break down long before it causes any problems. If you include bones with the meat they can be an excellent source of calcium and trace minerals that are commonly missing in ordinary garden soil.
This brings us to building a compost pile of the proper size. There are a lot of commercial options available out there and nearly all of them are inadequate. You need a minimum of one cubic yard of material. Most commercial composters costing upwards of $100 hold less than half that much material. The reason for the amount of volume is that it is required to grow the proper amount of microorganisms. The more material that you have the faster the microorganism population will develop and the faster the material will be broken down. So put aside your plans to use 5 or even 50 gallon barrels to make compost tumblers, they just aren’t large enough. A wire frame with minimum dimensions of 3’x3’x3’ will all you need to get started and once you fill it to the top you will know you have the required one cubic yard.
Finished compost is 100% organic material, ready to be added to your lawn or garden. To dramatically improve the quality of your soil adding 20% volume of compost will do the trick. You can use 100% compost to grow plants but this can cause problems with excessive compaction and a possible lack of nutrients. A common growing mixture is equal parts compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. A “tea” of compost can be made by steeping a small amount of compost in a container of water. This allows you to feed your existing plants all of the beneficial microorganisms and organic material without digging up the soil to incorporate the compost.
Finally composting has several very significant benefits, besides being great for your garden. By composting you are reducing what ends up in the landfills, and possibly saving yourself some money on trash pickup. Harnessing Mother Nature’s tools to produce a useable product from waste materials just makes sense. If you end up using this to grow fruits and vegetables you are living responsibly and eating locally. I can also attest that growing your own vegetables from your own compost comes with a certain amount of satisfaction, not to mention they usually taste better than anything you can find in the grocery store.