Composting is a subject that has so many differing ideas and methods, but there is one simple rule –
EVERYTHING THAT IS NATURAL WILL BREAK DOWN EVENTUALLY!
So having made that statement, the real reason for all the articles, gardening videos etc is because, as keen gardeners, we all want to make compost as quickly as possible!
I’m going to try to help by making some easy suggestions, but the truth is that if you leave a large pile of organic matter, you will eventually find that it has become a little pile of earthy-smelling decomposed material that will hold water and add goodness to your soil and food for your plants. In fact, if you leave it unattended for long enough, the plants (usually weeds!) will find their own way to the compost.
Why compost? Three of the best reasons are:
- Soil is a living thing. A community of organisms lives in every pore – insects, micro-organisms, earthworms, and other soil dwelling creatures. A handful of garden soil contains more living organisms than the number of human beings on earth. The more organic matter and compost, the more food for the beneficial organisms that aerate the soil, release nutrients, and create even more organic matter with their waste and decomposition.
- Compost absorbs water like a sponge, and is one of the major reservoirs of soil nutrients, as water and nutrients cling to the surface area of the particles.
- Compost improves the soil structure, making it easier to work, providing better aeration, and the ability to absorb water more readily.
The important thing to remember about composting is that it is a biological process that involves bacteria, fungi, and other soil organisms. These organisms need to be fed; otherwise they will die or go somewhere tastier. Temperatures also need to be favourable for their growth and the pile needs to be moist, without being so wet that air is excluded.
Anything organic can be composted, and the method is up to you. It really depends on how long you want to wait, your materials and resources, and the time of year. My son Max did a science experiment last year where he tested 4 different methods of composting. There was very little difference in the time it took for the organic material to break down into usable compost, and I had 4 large containers of compost at the end – great experiment, thanks Max!
So let’s look at the content side of things – what do you put in it?
I have one basic rule: Put in more ‘carbon’ material than ‘nitrogen’ material.
Many gardeners have a specific formula, but to make it really simple, I put in 3 times as much carbon than nitrogen.
For carbon think ‘dry & brown’ – animal manures, straw, leaves, shredded paper and cardboard, and already partially broken down compost are great examples.
There are some ingredients that I don’t recommended –
- Citrus – said to be too acidic and that worms don’t like it, but I add the skins to compost if there are other materials to balance.
- Meat products – I avoid these as they attract flies and rodents.
- Animal manures from household pets – smelly and could contain disease.
I put all our household waste paper and cardboard in the compost, although I do have several heaps to share it between. I always soak it in water before adding, so it’s soft for the worms – they don’t have any teeth! I have even invested in a paper shredder which I use to make bedding for the chickens. It can all be added to the compost when I clean out the nesting box.
There are many different types of compost bins and methods, but they all work eventually.
You may hear people talk about two types of composting – aerobic (needing oxygen) and anaerobic (not needing oxygen). For easy composting, I just use the aerobic method – it’s cheap, uncomplicated, and achieves good results. If you don’t turn or aerate your compost heap it will probably go through both aerobic and anaerobic cycles while it is breaking down. When the heap has just started there will be lots of oxygen present for the aerobic bacteria and microbes and other creatures. As the composting process continues, oxygen will be used up and more anaerobic bacteria will be active. Your worms and other oxygen loving critters may find fresher air at this point! These conditions will change again before your heap has decomposed.
Any method works quicker if it’s ‘managed’ – by that I mean if the balance of materials is checked and adjusted as needed, and if the heap is turned and sorted occasionally.
My process is really simple – when I need some compost for the garden, I choose the oldest compost bin and do the following:
- Take off the top 1/3 – this is usually only partially composted and can be used to start a new compost heap.
- Sort through the next 1/3 – this is usually a mixture of completely decomposed compost and partial compost. It’s up to you how you use this – I take out the big ‘bits’ and put them in the next heap and use the rest on the garden.
- Collect the bottom 1/3 of ‘black gold’ compost and use it wherever you like. Because I put all our paper waste through the compost, there will often be bits of plastic (like from envelopes with windows!) or sticky tape from cardboard boxes. Unfortunately the only place for these is landfill! Take care of any worms as you sort, and give them a home in your new compost heap.
- If it’s too dry, it lacks moisture and possibly nitrogen. Just add water, and nitrogen waste if you think it’s not balanced.
- If it’s smelly, it may be out of balance. If it’s too slimy, add more carbon – straw or old manure, and if you’re really keen, you can add a cupful of lime. It may also have run out of oxygen, so if you are energetic, you can do the sorting process above, or turn your compost heap over.
However, if you don’t have time for this, don’t worry – your compost will break down eventually. I only do all this because I’m impatient and love compost!
Below are some of the methods I use and are the ones that Max tested out in his experiment.
Open compost heap
This is the easiest but probably takes the longest, especially if it’s left alone. I use this type of compost heap for large prunings and piles of leaves and twigs (if you don’t have a mulcher). Just find an unseen area of the garden and leave it to break down.
Wire compost heap
This is easily constructed with a piece of chicken wire and ties. Simply make a circle with the wire and tie it together, making sure it is at least 1m² in area – this will ensure your critters have a cosy home that will keep moist enough.
Enclosed plastic bin
I have several of these, and they keep the compost contained and the worms happy! They do heat up in summer, so I usually place them in the shade and move them to the sun in winter. I also position them in the garden itself, so I don’t have to move the compost when it’s ready – yes I really am quite a lazy gardener!
This method is great for worms, as the bins have an open base and the worms will wriggle on up to find the compost! If it gets hot, the worms go to the centre of the heap, or go into the ground.
These are great, especially if you have a small garden and not much waste. However, the worms do need to be fed regularly, and in my experience still need a good balance of carbon and nitrogen. They need to be fed more than just kitchen scraps. I add paper, straw and manure to mine and the worms just love it!
Don’t be concerned if you have slaters, earwigs or other small creatures in your compost – they all help to decompose your waste. (See my other post on slaters and earwigs). Also, don’t worry if you start growing fungi, as its all part of the natural process.
Please give composting a try – it’s really quite easy and happens naturally even when we don’t do anything! You literally can’t go wrong.
Until next time,
Happy gardening as you look forward to the Spring!