How to Compost
You’ve got all your materials ready. You’ve also gotten the knack of sorting what’s good from what’s bad for compost. Even better, you’ve found the perfect place and container for holding your compost, and watching the decomposition take place.
How do you go about it, though? Gathering knowledge of materials for composting is the important and more complex part, but getting your pile started is easy.
Once you get the knack of how to approach, manage, and assist with the breaking down of your exciting new pile, the rest is mostly just sitting back and waiting for the magic to happen.
The Compost Dance – Nitrogen and Carbon Matter
“So you just throw your scraps in your compost container, right?” Well, not exactly.
The thing to realize, and what also makes composting so easy, is that all your stuff really DOES want to break down on its own. Ultimately, it doesn’t need much of your help. You don’t have to do much to get the process going— the most you ultimately do is assist and support it, through composting finesse and easy techniques just about anyone can do.
Have you created an awesome compost pile? Don’t let it get to your head! Remember: nature does most of the work and has been for much longer than you. But every composter can and should do something important: pay attention to amounts of nitrogenous vs. carbonaceous matter.
This ensures that the pile is breaking down in a way that doesn’t lose nutrients, does stimulate helpful soil organisms, but doesn’t exude a terrible stink that permeates your home. A healthy compost that you’ll want to end up using (or donating to others who wish to use it) depends on an optimal ratio and balance of nitrogen and carbon.
What’s nitrogenous matter? You could almost call anything of nitrogenous matter something that still has a lot of “life” to it. Nitrogen is your fresh, green material. This includes most of your fresh vegetable scraps and still-green plant matter, such as the following:
- Weeds from your garden
- Corn stalks
- Slightly wilted green
- Old lettuce leaves
- Leftover pulp (if you’re a juicer!)
- Apple core
- Tomato stems
- Banana peel
- Citrus rinds (only if you aren’t hoping for quickly-produced compost)
If you are using any sort of animal product in your compost, these would be rich in nitrogen too. Egg-shells, old dairy, and especially animal manure (one of the highest sources of nitrogen and wonderful things to add to your compost) are great examples.
What is carbonaceous matter? In contrast, carbon matter has had a lot of life and energy leave it already, and represents most dry and fragile materials. Carbon is your brown, dry, crackly stuff. If you have something that is very dried down, you can expect that all that’s left is the carbon from the old life form.
- Dried leaves
- Tree bark
- Straw or hay (make sure it doesn’t have weed seeds though)
- Nuts and nutshells
- Shredded cardboard
- Pine needles
- Shredded Newspaper (but not colored papers)
- Wood ashes
- Peat moss
- Burnt matches
I have both…now what do I do? Having plenty of both is a great start. But if you want to make the absolute most of the composting process (maybe even speed it up a bit), it takes a bit of finessing these materials, and a brief chemistry lesson.
A fantastic compost, breaking down in just the way you want it to (and without getting too weird), depends on the skillful layering and adequate ratio of these two categories of matter. A key thing to remember: nitrogenous matter rises as it breaks down, while carbonaceous sinks.
As you pile on your excess waste, don’t simply put it in your container or pile helter-skelter. To retain nutrients/organisms, reduce stink, and speed decomposition: focus on always covering your nitrogen with a good layer of carbon, which helps “trap” all the good stuff and make the magic happen!
Additionally, you’ll want to aim for the perfect ratio of carbon-to-nitrogen: 3 parts carbon to each part nitrogen, or a pile that is always ¾ carbon and only ¼ nitrogen.
Remember though: this is only ideal. Your compost is going to break down and retain some nutrients no matter what you do. However, the tips above can help optimize the process—and steer it away from becoming the mess you fear.
Air and Water – Oxygen and Moisture
Besides carbon and nitrogen, what other balances in composting should you pay attention to in managing and caring for your pile?
AIR – The first is oxygen, and making sure that enough aeration takes place. This ensures that the beneficial bacteria to help with healthy breakdown is aerobic, as opposed to anaerobic.
“Aerobic” means oxygen thriving, and this furthers your compost being filled with air-breathing, beneficial microorganisms and bacteria. Without enough oxygen and airflow, however, your compost cannot “come alive” with the stuff you’d truly want to add to your garden—and the proliferation of anaerobic bacteria is what creates that awful, rotting stink!
- How to ensure enough airflow? There are a few ways to do this. With your compost containers, adding holes to the container ensures that air can get in and out. You can also break up or add twigs or sticks, which create air pockets in your compost, or put together grate-like structures that go within the compost. Both create the same effect.
If your compost is outdoors, make sure it is not so enclosed that air cannot move freely. Be sure to give it shelter from the wind if you have it exposed to a windy area. Too much oxygen can be undesirable as well, and it can dry out or speed up decomposition too much.
- Additionally: turn your compost. Get in there once a week, or as often as you are able, and stir stuff around once it has been sitting about for a while. This will ensure that air is getting to places it might not be reaching, thus aerating your pile.
WATER – Adequate moisture is essential as well. Just like air, you don’t want too much—but you also don’t want too little.
Water should run out of composting material like water would run out of a sponge being squeezed. If your compost is too dry, you can always water to material that is in the process of composting. But do realize that you cannot water a completely finished compost of broken-down matter—at that point, you’re just watering dirt.
Also, double check with an outdoor pile. Make sure that your compost isn’t in the sun or exposed to the wind too much.
Does your pile smell rotten? Add more carbonaceous or “brown” matter, which should help soak up excess smell. You may notice your compost is too wet if it suddenly starts smelling awful, and has a sloppy, goopy texture when you turn or mix it. If you have an outdoor compost pile, make sure that it’s well sheltered from too much rain, and allowed to have excess water drain away instead of pool up. There are numbers available on the ideal moisture content (typically between 50-60%), but an easier way to think about it: your pile should feel as damp as a wrung out sponge.
Temperature – Hot and Cold
It is vital to ensure that your compost is at a healthy temperature. Highly dedicated and precise compost-builders will check their piles as often as they take the temperature of their sick kid!
The cold, hard truth: a hotter temperature means quicker decomposition. Here are some bits of advice on managing the heat of your pile and to make sure it’s in its prime.
- Take its temperature. Every day, push a thermometer into the very center of your pile—you may need a special thermometer to do this, but an at-home one is fine. This should not be an electric thermometer; instead, go for a simple mercury thermometer (safety warning: be sure you keep this thermometer for compost use only).
- Compost can get real hot! If it is somewhere between the temperatures of 130° to 150° F, it is in a prime state of decomposition. Keep it up!
- If it’s going over 160° F, this usually means it’s time to turn the compost. Once it’s turned, it usually cools down. Too high of a temperature over time can encourage undesirable bacteria and shut down the breakdown process.
The Art of Vermicompost
The majority of the composting methods we have gone through so far concern “aerobic composting,” which is the method of assisting and breaking down your organic waste material with the help of air, moisture, temperature, bacteria and microbes.
However, there is a whole other classification of composting that involves not only the help of microorganisms, but worms as well! “Vermi” means “worm,” and other terms for vermicomposting include vermiculture or worm farming.
This exciting method, if you do not mind worms, can be a lot simpler than aerobic composting—but does share basic similarities. Worms help eat and break down matter, as well as assist with aeration of the compost and colonizing it with beneficial, aerobic bacteria—furthering breakdown.
It also integrates exceptionally well with the indoor space of a home or small apartment: you don’t need to do much, you don’t need too much space, and worms almost always take care of the smell for you.
- How does one vermicompost? Just like with aerobic composting, you need a container of a certain size and with holes for oxygen/aeration—not only for the soil microbes in this case, but also for your little worms to breathe.
- Similarly, holes in the bottom are needed for drainage so your worms don’t drown! Set up a drainage pan or lid to ensure this doesn’t happen.
- Then, line the bottom of your container (about 1/3 of the depth) with carbonaceous matter. Starting with a little handful of completely natural soil, you place this on top of the matter, along with your selected, compost-friendly worms.
- Just like aerobic compost, you add your scraps on top of the leaves and soil (your worms will burrow in) and then cover with more carbonaceous matter. The worms break this down and biodegrade your plant matter food waste into beautiful, usable black humus and soil.