Welcome back to my Nitty Gritty on Composting, this is part two. We went into the why behind making your own black gold and now we’re going into the how. I know, I know, we're into winter (gasp, snow on Job’s Peak), it's too late to make compost now. Wrong! Making you wait until spring seemed nonsensical. At least this will give you time to save up some coffee grounds, give you the knowledge and confidence to make your own come spring (or even now... if you still have leaves hanging around). Let’s dive in!
There are two ways of composting.
I’m not going to bore you with going into deep detail with both but just to so you know there’s aerobic (hot) composting and anaerobic (cold) composting. Didn’t think you would be in for a science lesson, huh? We will be focusing on aerobic composting, since that’s the method we use on Sierra Flower Farm but just to get an A+ from the teacher here’s a fancy table showing the basic differences:
Very basic, I’m sure I just made any expert or semi-knowledgeable person face palm with my lovely table, but there you have it!
How do you exactly make this aerobic compost?
First, make a holding receptacle. This can be made out of pallets, chicken wire- anything that helps to hold it together but allows breathing. There are some great YouTube tutorials on how to build some. Once again, we’re simple (and rather lazy). We had some chicken wire leftover and hubs made it a big circle and wired it together at the ends. We have two of these high-end receptacles. Now, if you have a big critter problem- like gross rats- you might want to build a better system. Rotting food can attract critters, so that’s something to contemplate on.
For now, we have two of these chicken wire bad boys, Graham has dreams of having them lining the side of our house (because that’s going to look adorable…). We keep three piles going- think Goldilocks and the three bears. One that’s in the beginning stages of cooking, one somewhere in the middle and one that is finishing up. There’s a fourth pile, called the garden. We go through compost around here!
It’s important to have the proper ratio of carbon materials to nitrogen materials. What are carbon materials? Think brown, fallen leaves and dead garden debris. The roots of the trees had been pulling up all kinds of great trace minerals into the leaves, so fallen leaves have some pretty desirable nutrients to provide. What are nitrogen materials? Think green, freshly clipped grass and used coffee grounds (which aren’t green… but still full of nitrogen). We’ve been trolling our local coffee shops (thanks DST!) for as many coffee grounds as they will give us, and with all those lavender lattes, we’ve been getting loads!
Here’s a list of some materials to use. Be sure any plant material you add is disease free.
Dry garden waste (for us we had tons of sweet pea vines!)
Lesser amounts of: wood shavings*
* With wood shavings, be sure to avoid redwood and any treated wood (i.e. rot-resistant treated wood).
Fresh cut grass
Non-carnivorous animal waste (especially poultry)
Spent brewery grains (wheat)
Any green plant waste
* Now my husband informed me that kitchen waste isn’t all that beneficial, as far as volume goes. Some things shouldn’t go into a compost pile- such as anything coated in oil, onions, potato peels, etc. I like to put my kitchen waste in the compost pile (yes, I’ve tossed whole cantaloupes in there before, my husband rolls his eyes some but eventually it breaks down!). Plus, it makes me feel eco-friendly and less wasteful. Graham can’t wait until I’m out of the garden and actually cooking again, so more goes into meals and less to the compost. Also, egg shells are awesome. Once again, use with caution. When we aren’t lazy, we bake our egg shells to get rid of any potential salmonella. This is something to greatly consider if you are planning on using your compost in the vegetable garden.
The ratio of these materials (carbon : nitrogen aka brown : green) is 1:1. Seems pretty simple, right? Now, you don’t want to simply throw all the materials in the pile and drop the mic. There is some effort, such as layering and watering the brown layer. Quick, a fancy (not really a) diagram:
You want to stack the materials to be one cubic meter or larger. The more volume of the materials means more bacteria which means the pile will cook more. Be sure to water the brown (carbon) layers because the bacteria need water to grow and survive.
Honestly, temperature wise, spring is pretty awesome for compost but the volume of materials is readily available in the fall. In the summer months, your compost pile does best in the shade. Remember, the heat of the direct sun is not needed for your compost pile to “cook,” its all about that helpful bacteria decomposing the material and creating heat. With that said, the decomposition process does need some warm days. Crazy enough, with all the coffee grounds we just checked ours yesterday and billows of steam erupted! In December! I can't manage keep warm without layers but that compost is cooking!
You have your layers made, you watered properly- now what? You can kick back and relax and not think much of the compost pile for about five days. In five days, you want to stick your hand and it should be noticeably warmer. In three to four weeks, you want to do your first turn. If you don’t have a pitch fork, we highly recommend purchasing one! Guess we do have some fancy equipment. It makes for turning your compost pile much more enjoyable and efficient. A spade shovel isn’t the best choice for moving your compost pile. Add water to your pile if it needs more moisture.
Troubleshooting your compost pile
You made the pile, you layered, watered but five days after- nothing! It’s not noticeably warmer, well there’s a few reasons why this may be happening:
- Not enough moisture
o Poke holes with a rod and water
- Ratio wrong (too much carbon)
o Poke holes with a rod and add coffee grounds
- Not warm enough outside
o Put black plastic over the pile. This will impede oxygen at some level but will also help the pile to start decomposing.
- Not enough oxygen in the pile
o Poke hole with a rod to open up and allow oxygen in
- Too much nitrogen in the pile can balance itself out. May be soupy and stinky but eventually will even out.
- Too much carbon will cause the pile to go to anaerobic and stop cooking
Hope this gives you another lump of knowledge and something to add to your gardening arsenal. Thriving gardens begin with healthy soil and compost is the best amendment! We now have our spring blooms tucked into their beds for the long winter ahead.