Home Composting Made Easy
By Barry Fugatt
Most gardeners, particularly urban gardeners, have difficulty disposing of leaves, grass clippings and other garden refuse. Typically, we rake and stuff leaves and clippings into plastic bags, drag them to the curb, and wait for trash haulers to collect them and haul them to a local land fill.
Home composting is a far better use of garden waste. Our local landfills are spared mountains of garden refuse that takes up valuable space. It’s estimated that yard waste amounts to 20 to 30 percent of landfill space. Recycling reduces the pressure on over taxed landfills and it provides us with a valuable soil amending resource.
Value of Composting
There simply is no commercial product on the market that improves soil as well as finished compost. Finished compost is decomposed organic matter (humus) and it’s rich in essential plant nutrients. When tilled or thoroughly spaded into a poor soil, it greatly improves aeration and drainage. Improving a soil’s fertility and physical characteristics will result in much healthier flowers, vegetables and shrubs.
Fast and Slow Composting
Slow "Cold" Composting - In this simplest of all composting methods, one simply locates a convenient spot in the garden, builds a 3 to 4 foot square and high holding bin, fills it with leaves, sprinkles it with water an lets mother nature do the rest. Slow composting is truly slow. It may take a year or more for the leaves to decay. But, you don't have to turn the pile, check its temperature, add activators, manures, or anything else. Eventually, you'll have compost to spread in the garden. And while you're waiting, leaves no longer clutter the lawn or overwhelm the local landfill.
The holding bin need not be a complicated or expensive piece of architecture. A simple wire enclosure in the corner of the garden or behind the garage works fine.
Fast "Hot" Composting - Fast composting is for gardeners who wish to greatly speed up the process. Leaves, hay or virtually any high carbon material is shredded by a chipper-shredder. A lawn mower may be used to shred leaves, but it's not as effective as a machine designed for shredding. Chopping and shredding yard waste greatly increases its total surface area, allowing greater access by microorganisms and faster decomposition.
Layering your compost pile is a key to rapid composing. Start your pile by spreading a 6 to 8 inch layer of shredded leaves in a wire, wood or concrete block holding bin. The bin should be large enough to hold heat and small enough to admit sufficient air to the center of the pile. A 3 to 5 foot square and high bin usually works best.
Next, sprinkle a nitrogen source over the shredded leaves. Nitrogen greatly accelerates the process of decomposition. Fresh (green) grass clippings, a commercial animal manure, dried blood, and synthetic material such as urea are excellent nitrogen sources. A combination of nitrogen sources also may be used.
If manure is used, evenly spread several shovels full over each layer of shredded yard waste. If urea or dried blood is used, a cup full should be adequate.
Many gardeners swear by commercial compost activators or inoculants. If used, they should be sprinkled over the leaves and fertilizer at this point. However, they really aren't necessary. A shovel full of rich garden soil contains billions of microbes and works as well. Simply scatter a shovel full of soil over the pile and forget the activators.
Some gardeners also like to sprinkle lime over the pile at this point. Again, it’s not necessary, or wise in my opinion.
During the early stages of rapid decomposition, organic acids are produced which significantly drops the pH. However, most composting organisms actually perform best at a low pH. Also, adding lime converts ammonium nitrogen to ammonia gas, causing a potential odor problem. As the composting process nears completion, the pH will naturally rise again, usually back to a near perfect 6.2 to 6.8.
After the shredded leaves, nitrogen source, and rich soil have been added, sprinkle the layered material with water. The composting materials should have the consistency of a damp sponge. It should never be soupy wet, however.
Continue adding layers by repeating the previous steps until the pile reaches 3 to 5 feet in height. Within days the interior of the pile will rapidly heat to a temperature of 110 to 140 degrees. The heat indicates rapid decomposition.
Turning the pile is work. But a weekly turning is a critical part of fast or hot composting. The turning process is greatly facilitated by having side by side units (turning units). Simply fork the composting materials from one unit (bin) to the other. You probably will need to add a sprinkling of water after each turning.
Occasionally, a freshly turned pile will fail to heat up again. If this happens, apply additional nitrogen. Also, it’s a good idea to keep the pile covered with poly plastic or a tarp to hold in the heat. The compost will be finished when the pile cools and decreases to about one third of its original volume. Typically, this occurs in 6 to 8 weeks.
Specially designed compost tumblers are commercially available that also speed rapid decomposition. Shredded yard wastes, along with a share of soil, a nitrogen source, and a sprinkling of water, are placed in the barrel-like devices. The compost filled tumblers are then manually turned several times each week. Tumbling the yard waste alleviates the need to manually turn the material with a pitch fork.