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Farmers Almanac
The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

Composting: Beyond the Basics

Composting: Beyond the Basics

Somewhere along the line, in your quest to become a more green, earth-friendly individual you happened upon the wonders of composting. Perhaps you were little skeptical, at first, with the idea of taking rotting food and letting it sit in a pile in your backyard for all the neighbors to see, but you now consider yourself a seasoned veteran and avid proponent of the practice. You’ve learned that the satisfaction of keeping your extra food waste out of the landfill and putting back into the ground is only half the satisfaction of composting. The other half comes from being able to use that “black gold” to enrich your soil and grow beautiful plants. Still, there are times when you can’t help but wonder, for example, as you cover the freshly dumped pile of last night’s dinner with a mound moldy leaves, whether you are really doing this whole composting thing right. You learned the basic steps early on, but somehow, it seems like you should be getting more actual compost at the end, or maybe you wish your pile would feel hotter or smell less. Like many other seasoned gardeners out there, what you’re really wondering is, “How can I make really great compost?”

Eliot Coleman, renowned organic gardener and author of the book Four-Season Harvest, states, “It’s not difficult. Compost wants to happen.” Mr. Coleman does not say that compost wants to happen perfectly. Why? Because compost can’t happen perfectly, at least not all on its own. With our help, however, compost can come pretty darn close to perfect, as long as we create the right conditions and devote more than a dump of the bucket’s worth of time to our pile. Here are a few beyond-the-basics tips for turning your average pile into a hidden treasure trove of black gold.

Get Rid of the Blues with the Browns and Greens
Anyone who’s composted before knows that every good pile is made up a ratio of alternating layers of “browns” (dried leaves, straw, plant stalks or dried grass) and “greens” (food scraps, grass clippings, garden wastes, fresh leaves etc). You should start with about a 3″ layer of browns, and a 2″-6″ layer of moist greens. In addition, paying attention to what makes up your browns and greens is just as important to having them in there at all. So what are some of the best “browns” out there? Ask any gardener or farmer and they’ll tell you straw. Straw is the stem of grains like wheat, oats, barley, or rye, after the seed head has been removed. Straw has such a great reputation as a compost brown because of its hollow structure and ability to create porous layers that promote the circulation of air for heating up and quickly breaking down your pile. Straw is also wonderful because it breaks down slowly. Unfortunately, most of us home gardeners do not have fields of wheat growing in our backyards to provide us with an endless supply of straw. If you are interested in making really great compost, it is well worth the investment to purchase a few bales from your local grower to add to your pile.

As for the greens, the more varied the better. Just like you want to vary all the veggies in your diet so you can get a myriad of nutrients, you’ll want to throw in many different kinds of green plant matter into your pile. This means not just kitchen or garden scraps, but weeds (many of which contain important trace minerals), and shrub and tree trimmings. To top off your eclectic green layer, you’re going to want spread a thin layer of soil. This addition of soil to your compost helps to increase the decomposition of the plant matter and, more importantly, brings in the much need microbiological activity to help raise the temperature of your heap and break it down faster.

“A Hot, Moist Sponge”
There is a good deal of unspoken courage involved in creating a great compost pile. Who but a brave person would be willing to handle all the smelly food scraps, creepy crawlers, and other assorted “yucky” stuff that finds its way into a compost pile? Handling your compost, however, is key to really understanding and assessing its composition. You want your pile to feel like a hot, damp sponge right below the surface and all the way into its center. If all things are going well it will most likely be a little warmer in the center than right along the surface. This means that you may need to occasionally add some water to your pile to make sure it stays moist. You also want to make sure you are “stoking the fire” of the pile. The right ratio and composition of browns and greens will help you keep your pile’s fire evenly burning. Add air if necessary by occasionally “fluffing” the pile with your pitchfork. You can also turn the pile, if you wish, but it can be a lot of work and should not need to happen if you are layering correctly. The browns in your pile can be thought of as the kindling and the greens, the fuel. Too much green will make a smelly, very hot pile that burns out quickly. Too much brown will create a dry, cold fire.

To Add or Not to Add?
As valuable as straw is to your compost, certain materials that seem like great additions can actually be detractors. Leaves, for example, are a very common household addition to the compost pile. But they layer in such a way that they actually block the circulation of air in your heap. This is especially true for wet leaves. Don’t worry about what to do with all of those leaves from your yard, though. Broken down or shredded leaves make a great garden amendment, and can be used as mulch or turned into your soil in the fall. You’ll also want to avoid adding things like wood chips and hay. Though they look similar, hay doesn’t have the same structure as straw and will also mat down in your pile. If you have the good fortune of being able to get a hold of some animal manure, feel free to layer it into your pile along with some good old-fashioned dirt. You’ll only want to use a small amount however. A great way to get it into your pile is to find a farmer who’s willing to donate the straw they’ve used as bedding in their horse, goat, or cow stalls. Poultry manure can be added to the pile, but is very concentrated in nitrogen and can sometimes make your pile too hot too fast.

10 comments

1 linda strong { 05.22.11 at 5:35 pm }

My mother in law who compost’s everything throw’s cleaned mussel shells in her compost to airate the pile. Is this o.k.. Also should cut flowers be thrown into the mix.

2 chris chapman { 05.19.11 at 6:06 pm }

I started my first compost pile today. I have a 5gallonbucket of worms that i have been keeping since my last fishing trip. I said what the heck and i threw some leftover veggies in there and cover it. What should i really do from here?

3 Patricia A. Smith { 03.01.11 at 10:43 am }

When I had my first compost pile, I added the leavings from my pet bunny’s litter box (aspen litter and bunny manure). It made for very rich compost, and I am using it again.

4 Terri { 09.15.10 at 4:23 pm }

Hi I am new to the composting thing but I think I am doing pretty good. I do need to know what are the usual bugs that would show up in a compost pile? I think I seen a roach and if that is the case I will stop composting. Any ideas or advise is welcoming.

5 cia { 08.19.10 at 3:11 pm }

Please tell me where to put my compost pile. I have it in a vented plastic garbage can buried halfway into the soil in a shady spot. A friend said it needs to be in full sun. No information on this subject can be found! Help! Thanks.

6 Rose Dupuis { 08.09.10 at 8:05 pm }

I am confused,,, if I add mulch to my garden for all the benifits it brings with it, I have also given those bad bugs a hiding place. Soooo how to solve this problem as in the fall I mow the leaves then mulch to my hearts content…….I like to create a feast for the birds, giving them morefood for a longer time in the fall plus early in the spring snacks…..if I spray biological sprays or home made one to keep the bad bugs from living or developing how am I effecting all the good ones ???? help

7 dmsalazar { 08.05.10 at 10:06 am }

sawdust/chips help tremendiously too…..a bit of peat wouldn’t hurt…it retains
moisture much better then plain dirt/soil

8 Garrett B { 07.29.10 at 10:14 pm }

My approach (for the whole year and a half I’ve been composting) has been to basically throw in any good organic plant matter that I can easily break down into tiny bits with my hand. I don’t actually break things down by hand like that, but it’s the rule of thumb that I use. For my first year of growing using the compost, my plants using a 50/50 compost to potting soil mixture has yielded much happier plants than those only planted in potting soil. I’d estimate a good 25-50% larger and healthier looking. I even brought a few plants back from the brink by repotting them and mixing in compost!

As for weeds, I don’t think I’ve ever had any grow in my compost. I occasionally see a couple sprouts if I hadn’t turned in a while and let the top layer dry out, but a good turning sends the weedlings back to their composty grave!

9 leahrae { 07.29.10 at 4:40 pm }

Patsy, farmers also bale straw for bedding. Stores that sell seeds and feed often have it.

10 Patsy Ledbetter { 07.28.10 at 10:15 am }

The straw mentioned, how does one identify it. The bales of straw/hay the farmers have, isn’t it hay, not straw? So, in order to get “straw” will I have to get it specially prepared or baled…not cost effective I would think.
Another question, what happens to the seeds in the “straw” and weeds in the compost. Does the heating process kill them?
Thanks for your answer.

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