Composting 101: Don't Start Before You Know These 5 Facts

Think starting a compost pile just means throwing garbage in a heap? Think again! Proper composting is an art and science!

By Bufford LeFleur

 

Composting is a great way for homeowners to make their own DIY fertilizer that beats any fertilizer you can buy at a store, but composting gets a bad rap. It's thought of as "yucky" and "smelly" — an eyesore that attracts pests. But those smelly heaps have way more pros than cons. Composting provides a great source of organic fertilizer, it reduces landfill waste so it's better for the environment, and it's FREE!

 

Read on to discover how you can create this nutrient-rich soil conditioner to have a healthier garden at home.

 

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Composting Nitty-Gritty

First let's talk about what the word "compost" means. Compost is organic matter that has been decomposed by organisms and recycled as fertilizer.

 

All sorts of critters from bacteria to bugs help to decompose your pile of waste into proper compost. Aerobic bacteria have the most important job in a compost pile, however, because they use carbon in the pile as a source of energy to keep eating (thereby creating compost), and nitrogen in the pile to grow and reproduce.

 

At its basic level, composting requires making a heap of wet organic matter known as "green waste" and waiting weeks or even months for the materials to break down into "humus." Humus is the dark organic matter that forms in the soil when plant and animal matter decays. Humus contains many useful nutrients for healthy soil (nitrogen being the most important of all). And healthy soil leads to? Bingo! A healthy garden!

 

But composting is not as simple as throwing garbage into a pile and waiting. There are five things you must be aware of before you start composting.

 

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1. Find a Balance

Composting requires the correct balance of green waste (grass clippings, food scraps, and manure), and brown waste (dry leaves, wood chips, and branches). Green waste is rich in nitrogen. Brown waste is full of carbon. Both elements are necessary for microorganisms to thrive in your compost pile, but finding the right ratio is key.  

 

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2. Size Matters

You shouldn't just throw whole banana peels and egg shells onto your compost pile. You'll make it more difficult for the microorganisms that feed on the waste in your pile if you don't break up your garbage first. Whether you have to grind, chip, or shred your garbage to make it smaller doesn't matter. What's important is that you break your garbage up into smaller particles before putting it in your compost heap.

 

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Why? Because by breaking up the garbage into little pieces, you exponentially increase the surface area upon which microorganisms can feed. Smaller particles also produce a more uniform compost mixture, and improve pile insulation to help maintain optimum temperatures (see item 5). If the particles are too small, however, they could prevent air from flowing freely through the pile, and we DO NOT want that, so don't go as far as grinding your garbage into dust!

 

3. 'The Essence of Wetness'

Like every other living thing on the planet, compost pile microorganisms need water to survive. Water is also important for compost heaps because it helps to transport the substances within the pile that the microorganisms feed on. The organic garbage you throw on your compost heap may already be wet, but that may not be enough. See that your pile gets enough water, whether through rainfall or watering it yourself.

 

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4. Compost Piles Need to Breathe

Oxygen flow is also important to keep your compost pile "alive." You can help your pile to "breathe" by occasionally turning pieces of the pile over with a shovel or pitchfork, situating your pile on pipes, or adding bulking agents like wood chips or shredded newspaper.

 

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The more oxygenated a compost pile is, the faster it will decompose the waste. But don't aerate your pile so much it dries out! See item 3!

 

5. Temperature

The microorganisms in your compost pile will only do their job well if the temperature of the pile is in the ideal range of about 140-160°F. Higher temperatures make the composting process go faster and also kill pathogens and any weed seeds in the pile. If the conditions are right in your heap, the metabolic processes of the aerobic bacteria can heat up a new pile to about 150°F in just a few days.

 

Monitor the temperature of your heap to keep it in the ideal 140-160°F range. Any higher than that and the beneficial microorganisms in the pile will begin to die. And you must make absolutely sure your pile's core never goes above 180°F or it could spontaneously combust and catch fire. If your pile gets too hot, start turning it over and watering it to cool it down.

 

It's a balancing act (see item 1) to get the right mixture of green and brown waste in your pile to create the right environment for the ideal temperature range. Not enough green, and your pile may be too cold for a good decomposition rate. Too much green, and it'll get too hot.

 

Finding the right mixture of green and brown waste requires experimentation and patience. Yes, proper composting is an art and science!

 

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