My house has adopted a strict philosophy of trying to be efficient and do what can be done to reduce waste. While some stuff can be reused, the little bits that can be used for the garden will go to the garden.
A good example is in the kitchen. When you cut up an onion or carrot or a lot of other veg, you end up with these little leftovers like tops and skins. Some of that can be saved for further turning into a rich vegetable broth, but once you have a lot extra even aside from that those scraps can be used in compost.
Less waste gets lost to the trash and instead of being more lost nutrients to a landfill it collects nutrients to the growing beds. You end up with high quality beneficial stuff in your soil that helps support the soil’s little ecosystem.
Getting Started With Composting
How I started with soil amendments was really simple at first. I had a tiny compost trash bin that would take about a week to fill up. I filled it with suitable junk mail, veggie scraps not meant for broth, and small bits of cardboard. I would then dump all of this outside in a special fixture I put in my backyard which was a simple square made of mesh wire and it would hold all the organic matter.
There are a lot of ways to go about making compost ranging from easy to not so easy. I’m lazy in the sense I think I should only have to work as hard as I have to and get the results I want. I have seen other gardeners do much more intense methods or even buy really expensive things.
I am alright with the slower results here as I still get the results I want.
Regardless of whatever way works for you it all comes down to basic principles.
Why Keep Compost?
The main reason I got into composting was when I started poking around learning about natural systems and how to build good soil it all seemed to come back to putting things back in the ground. Commercial farming accomplishes their huge task by spraying synthetic fertilizers though we now know that way of doing it causes risks like topsoil loss and soil degradation.
The other main thing is when you study how natural systems cycle around it comes down to a give and take. You take from the land and you have to give back to the land.
From my home is a lot of organic scrap, the leaves that come down every fall are valuable soil builders, all the cardboard and paper my home collects, and all the old waste water from my old fish tank, the droppings from my old bunnies, all of it was just itching to go back to the earth to feed it.
My first yard was clay. I had maybe half an inch of black topsoil and all the soil under it was this thick red clay. My first gardening attempt on that yard was pretty underwhelming. Every year I start building up the beds with more and more of my backyard produced compost.
Every year the soil looked richer and became softer. I noticed for the first time my yard had worms. When people ask about my garden results my answer is always leaf mulch and compost.
That is what I do every year it add another dressing of compost and fresh mulch. You can see all the life wriggling around in the soil and everything stays fluffy and moist. Everything that grows there seems happy unless I get the pH wrong.
How Composting Works
Soil is important to plants and good soil is a living organism. You have untold numbers of organisms thriving around in soil and compost is the same way. Compost requires its own level of care to develop.
In order to turn scrap into compost you have to understand the factors that will play into the process and results. You will add materials, size of materials will affect compost time, size of the pile will affect the time it takes, and you also need moisture and aeration or the pile can get stinky and putrid.
When the bacteria get to work you will notice your compost turns into a hot bed of sorts. You don’t want the temperatures ranging too high but compost with a bit of heat will break down well and timely.
Main Things for Compost
In order to make compost you need a good heap of supplies that give carbon. You might use things like leaves, straw, wood chips, or shredded paper.
You also need stuff that feeds your compost nitrogen. Nitrogen content is usually what you will find from your kitchen. You can put in your veggie scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, fruit bits, dead plant bits if you have indoor plants, and anything else of that nature not listed.
When the bits are smaller they have an easier time being broken down into compost and often you will end up with worms in your pile so long as they have ready access.
My compost is kept free of insecticide or herbicide and I often do animal waste piles separately though I no longer own chickens, rabbits, or goats.
You also want to avoid oils, fats, cheese, meat and bones as aside from not being so good for the compost it can attract pests to terrorize your yard. The goal is pure nutrition and no poisons, pathogens, or diseases.
Microorganisms and Compost
When it comes to compost a lot of little and big things are at work making it into a useable soil amendment. You have things like bacteria and fungus and then you have the larger things like ants, nematodes, worms, flies, beetles, and pill bugs.
Greens and Browns
Good compost is based on have a good ratio of “green” composting material like fruit scraps to “browns” like all the leaves I collect, paper, and cardboard. The goal is balancing out the 2 materials and aiming for lower green material so there is optimal microbial action. I just eyeball what looks like 3 times the amount of browns to my greens.
Some people get super technical with it but I just a good guess and go by smell and end result. My way of doing it is slower though I process a lot of scrap so speed isn’t a concern for me. The temperature of the pile while it is breaking down also gives clues on how things are going.
Compost needs moisture, air, and optimal temperatures to decompose and become a finished product. Normally with water you get a lot of moisture from the dumped greens but the piles might very well dry out if there isn’t a lot of rain and heat rolls in.
The compost should feel moist to the touch but not flooded. Oxygen is usually the bigger problem because compost often needs to be turned over or there will be a stink from anaerobic bacteria. Aerobic bacteria makes the compost have a more pleasant smell where it mostly registers as “dirt”.
Sometimes the compost may need to be turned with a hay fork or tossed by hand. The ideal temperature for a pile during the decomposition time is around 160F. One of the few garden investments worth getting is a compost thermometer.
They are relatively inexpensive and will take the guesswork out of the equation. I also like to use the tool to check my garden beds before different planting points.
If your compost is showing a measurement around 100 it means it is working. Around 140F is when some pathogens get burned out. When you hit 160F it is optimal and it isn’t desired to go over that point.
For active compost it helps to add to the pile every couple of days and make sure the ratios look good and it smells good. It also helps to toss the pile a bit.
Most of the time a normal person won’t have the time to nurture a pile to peak performance so the compost will still break down it is just a slower process. Every time it gets a bit of green and brown material and a little air the activity will perk up again.
Ready for The Garden
Finished compost is a very distinct thing. It will smell like the freshest, softest, earthiest dirt you have every handled. Soft and crumbly, dark and rich, and inviting for roots.
When it looks like the best dirt you have ever seen, you know it is ready for plants.