An Introduction to Composting

An Introduction to Composting

Why Should You Compost?

If you are not composting yet, it is time you start doing so my dear friend. Compost is beneficial in many ways and it can be used as potting soil for starting young plants, as mulch and for enriching and improving soil.
compost bin

Compost is often said to be the gardener’s black gold and that is because of its great value in improving soil – any soil.

Its foremost benefit is as soil fertilizer…

Compost has macro and micronutrients that are usually missing from synthetic fertilizers. As a natural fertilizer, it releases nutrients into the soil gradually, getting the microbes busy and constantly working to properly breakdown essential nutrients so plants can access them easily.

Also, soil that is compost enriched can hold on to other organic fertilizers better so there is less runoffs to waterways, minimizing pollution.

Compost can also improve poor soil…

Sandy soil cannot retain water and nutrients while clay soil holds too much water plants are overwhelmed. Also, clay and sandy soils have very poor microbe activity that much of the nutrients in the soil are unused by plants.

Adding compost to sandy soil will help improve its ability to retain water and nutrients. Amending clay soil with compost will make the tightly bound particles in it to loosen up making it easier for water to drain and for air to penetrate the soil.

If the soil is too acid or alkaline, compost will also act as buffer to neutralize the pH level of the soil. Optimum pH range (5.5 to 7 for most plants) is ideal for nutrient availability to your plants.

Soil that has never been planted in before can be rejuvenated and turned into an ideal growing medium by adding compost to it. The compost will introduce diverse biology that is essential for nurturing plants. A healthy soil has millions of microorganisms living in it – bacteria, fungi, worms, insects and other microbes. These organisms eat, excrete and make nutrients easier for plants to absorb.

Compost improves nutrient distribution…

The bacteria in compost break down nutrients into plant food. Some even convert nitrogen from the air into a nutrient available to the plant.

The bacteria also helps attract other microorganisms like fungi that feed on them converting more nutrients.

Worms and other organisms are also introduced into the soil, burrowing through and keeping it well aerated. Aeration is necessary to keep the activity going in the soil.

Compost helps prevent disease…

Compost can alter the structure of the soil so it isles likely to erode and prevent soil from spattering on plants thus preventing the spread of disease.

Also, compost has the ability to suppress harmful pests that can overrun poor soil.

Compost decreases runoff…

Compost prevents nutrients from washing out by holding them tightly but never too tight that plants can’t get to them.

Also, as compost improves the soil’s ability to retain water, run offs are decreased and water pollution is minimized.

Plant roots grow healthier and stronger due to compost so they can hold soil together better, preventing runoff.

Start composting and do your bit in preserving the environment…

Using compost to fertilize and improve soil quality reduces or even eliminates the use of damaging synthetic fertilizers.

Compost contains beneficial microorganisms that can protect plants from pests and diseases, so the need for chemical pesticides is also reduced.

Two Ways to Compost: Hot and Cold Composting

There’s more to composting than just making a pile of kitchen scraps, grass clippings, straw, leaves and other organic materials. A compost heap is a universe that hosts an ecosystem of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, sugars and enzymes) and nutrients and other organisms like earthworms, millipedes and bugs. But we don’t see the hidden aspects of compost, only the fine black gold which is the finished product and its many benefits. Nevertheless, if there is just ONE thing you do to improve your garden this year or next growing season, it is to start a compost pile.

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Creating compost is easy and the benefits are simply innumerable. By composting, you turn organic matter into a soil conditioner. Nutrients from the ingredients are not lost, they are simply moved around and turned into food that is readily available to plants. By composting, you also do your part in supporting the ecology plus it is a cheap, simple and fail-proof method of revitalizing your garden soil for better planting and growth.

There are two main approaches to composting: hot and cold composting.

Cold composting is something of a misnomer since even an untended ‘cold’ compost will heat up to some extent. This method is simply the passive (or lazy) way of composting while the other, hot composting, is the active way of creating beneficial humus.

Hot Composting
5750458082_25c7b29c00_mHot composting is the quickest way to produce rich garden humus. It is called ‘hot’ because when done right, it can reach a temperature of 160°F (140°F is best). 

A hot compost pile can destroy weed seeds and disease-causing organisms.

In order for a compost pile to heat up, it should be well-orchestrated for it to achieve the ideal environment to cook. The size of the pile, the materials added to it, layer arrangements and moisture are all key to achieving the desired results.

You know you have built your compost pile correctly if it can maintain its temperature for several days to longer than a week. Turn the pile and add water if the temperature starts to drop or if the temperature goes over 160°F.

Maintaining a hot compost pile requires more effort from the gardener but it could produce humus more quickly. You can have the finished product in just a few weeks or months.

Cold Composting

4790948885_baf6962ce0_nCold composting requires minimal effort from the gardener but it could take a long time to get the finished product. 

There are only two steps to cold composting and that involves:

  1. Putting organic scraps in a pile
  2. Wait

With this method of composting, you can simply add ingredients to it as you get them. The size of the particles as well as the type of materials you add will play a role on how long your compost will finish.

Chop materials into smaller particles for microorganisms to break these down faster. Be careful not to put in weeds because these could take roots and use up the nutrients in the forming compost.

The cooler temperature of cold compost tends to attract disease pathogens which can later be spread on your garden so this is a major disadvantage.

You can minimize the risk of weed seeds and disease pathogens by being careful about what you add in the pile.

Materials You Can And Should Not Compost

When it comes to composting, there are materials you can add to your compost pile and there are stuff you should avoid ever adding to it. And then there are also materials you can only add to your compost pile if you have the right skill.

The following are lists of materials you can add to your compost pile as well as materials you should avoid including. Some of these materials can be bulky so shred or chop them before adding to the pile so they are easier to break down.

Materials You Can Compost

Nitrogen-rich materials (greens):

  • Apple pomace
  • Clover
  • Cotton Bur
  • Dog food
  • Feathers
  • Fruit peels (except limes)
  • Hair
  • Leather and leather waste
  • Vegetable peels and scraps
  • Manure from herbivores such as cow, chicken, sheep, pig, horse, and rabbit.
  • Hay
  • Green Grass clippings
  • Flowers
  • Eelgrass
  • Cowpeas
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Banana peels
  • Algae, seaweed and lake moss

Carbon rich materials (browns):

  • Leaves
  • Nut shells
  • Hops
  • Dried Grass clippings
  • Dryer lint
  • Cocoa hulls
  • Cardboard
  • Alfalfa meal and hay
  • Paper
  • Oat straw
  • Peat moss
  • Tea leaves
  • Buckwheat straw or hulls
  • Unused cat litter
  • Cornstalks, corn cobs
  • Grape pomace
  • Hedge Clippings
  • Kelp (seaweed)
  • Newspaper
  • Oak leaves
  • Sawdust and wood shavings
  • Peanut hulls
  • Pine needles and cones
  • Vetch
  • Wheat straw

Neutral:

  • Wood ashes, not coal
  • Kitchen rinse water and beverages to keep pile moist; don’t overdo it though
  • Crushed egg shells

What You Can Compost If You Have The Right Skill

  • Weeds – these are rich in nitrogen but adding them has the risk of spreading the seed. If you want to add them to your compost pile, dry them out until they are crunchy.
  • Plants infected with disease – add only if your compost pile has a temperature of at least 135 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius) for a few days. The heat will kill the disease. This material can add nitrogen to your pile.
  • Bird droppings – nitrogen rich but may contain weed seeds or disease.
  • Cheese, milk, yogurt – a neutral material but may attract pests when added to the compost pile. You can put it deep into the pile though.
  • Sod – this nitrogen rich material should be added to the compost pile when it gets hot enough to keep the grass from growing in the compost.

What You Should NEVER Compost

  • Nonbiodegradable materials
  • Toxic materials
  • Cat and dog droppings – may contain disease organisms
  • Lime – the high alkaline pH destroys perfect composting environment
  • Colored paper
  • Coal or charcoal ashes – unlike wood ashes, these may contain materials toxic to plants
  • Grease, fat, oils, bones and meat – these do not breakdown and can attract pests; fats coat materials, making it hard for them to decompose.

Source

Pests in Compost: What to Do?

Creatures of the compost
Creatures of the compost. Image Courtesy: University of Salford

When composting, it is not unusual to see bugs and worms in the decomposing organic materials. These teeny-tiny, creepy-crawly creatures all play a role in the making of soil-enriching and plant-nourishing compost. The worms and other invertebrates like nematodes and sowbugs together with microorganisms eat the organic residues, they are called the primary consumers. Bugs that eat the primary consumers like the feather-winged beetles and springtails are called the secondary consumers. And bugs that eat the secondary consumers like centipedes and predatory mites are called the tertiary consumers. You can learn more about the science behind your compost pile and know about the common critters in your compost in this article.

What you don’t want to have in your compost pile – the ones that are truly considered pests are rodents and unwanted insects like fruit flies and cockroaches.

How to Keep Pests Off Your Compost

Rodents and insects like fruit flies are natural and essential members of ecosystems so they almost always find their way to compost piles or bins. To keep them off and prevent them from causing damage and disruption in your compost, you can do the following:

1. Keep the pile/bin from smelling

Odors attract unwanted pests so making the pile virtually odorless will make it unattractive to them. Maintain the ideal 20:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen materials to keep the pile from emitting a foul odor. Carbon materials, also known as brown materials, are generally dried materials like dried leaves, straw and shredded branches. Nitrogen materials are also known as green materials and examples are kitchen wastes and grass clippings. For lists of organic greens and browns you can compost, click here.

2. Turn the pile

Turning the pile once a week improves air circulation and aeration as well as stimulates microorganism activity. Another benefit to regularly turning your compost pile is it destroys bug nests and prevents unwanted bugs from settling in. When you turn the compost, put the fresh organic materials in the middle, burying them and keeping them out of reach of pests.

3. Maintain ideal heat and moisture

The ideal temperature of a compost pile is 140-160°F (60-71°C). This temperature can destroy weed seeds, disease-causing organisms and keep bugs from nesting and reproducing. A compost pile with 3 cubic feet dimension can reach the ideal temperature. Anything smaller will not heat up enough.

4. Use pest proof composting systems

Commercially sold composting bins are pest-proof so rodents and most unwanted insects cannot get into the scraps. You can also make your own enclosed composting bin using a barrel or garbage can. Make sure you provide ventilation by drilling holes. But because immature bugs can easily slip through crevices and bugs, some pest infiltration may still occur.

5. Try a different way to compost

There are other composting methods you can try which may minimize pest problems. One method you can try is vermicomposting. This method uses worms to decompose the organic materials inside a closed bin or system. The enclosure keeps pesky pests from getting into the organic materials. Another method is called soil incorporation which is also referred to as trench or pit composting where you simply dig a hole (about 1-2 feet deep) and burying the food waste in it. The animals won’t be able to get into the scraps, but the worms, microorganisms and other decomposers will.

Trench Composting: An Easy Way to Compost But Requires a Lot of Patience

Trench composting is a method of cold composting where, as the name implies, one simply digs a pit or trench, fill it with organic materials and leave it for nature to do the rest.

trench-composting

The compost pit should be a foot deep and once you have about 4-inches of organic materials in it, you fill it with soil. It is a really simple way to deal with kitchen scraps – i.e. vegetable waste and fruit peelings – as it does not require turning and constant checking as with other methods of hot composting.

The length of time it will take for the compost to be ready depends on the materials you are composting as well as on the temperature. With pit composting, the compost is ready in as soon as a month or as long as a year.

Some seasoned gardeners who use trench composting dig their trench around trees’ drip lines. This is advantageous to the trees as their roots can readily access the nutrients from the composting material.

Finished compost from this method cannot be harvested, unlike with other methods of composting such as bin or heap composting. It can however be used to enrich an area you want to plant in so the trench or pit is best made near the planned planting area. Be prepared for some extra digging.

If you are composting high carbon-content materials which need a lot of nitrogen to decompose, this will result in the nitrogen for plants being depleted. This can be remedied by adding bone or blood meal to the material.

Or, you can just let your trench lie fallow for 1 year after filling it in. This ensures that the compost is complete and all nutrients will be available to your plants.

Trench Composting the English Way

There is a variation to pit composting called the English System.

If you have a larger area where you can set up your garden, you can try this method.

Prepare the area by dividing it into three rows. Each row should be about 1 foot wide and as long as you want.

These rows will be your (1) trench, (2) path and (3) planting area. The purpose of each row will be rotated every year. See the crude and unprofessionally made figure. 🙂

trench composting

So in Year 1, you make the TRENCH and you either have PLANTS existing or none yet. Just be sure there is a PATH between the trench and the planting area.

On Year 2, the trench becomes the PATH to allow the nutrients to completely breakdown and be incorporated into the soil. The previous year’s path becomes the PLANT area and the former planting area is now the TRENCH for compost.

On year 3, the trench in Year 1 is the PLANT area – by now that area is rich in nutrients with very manageable, well-structured soil. The previous year’s planting area is now the TRENCH and the former trench the PATH.

As usual, the trench should be 1 foot deep and once there is 4-inches of organic material in there, fill it with soil. This will keep pests like rodents and even your own pets from getting to the compostable materials.

If you continue doing this cycle, in a few years’ time, you will have garden soil that is compost enhanced, healthy, well-structured, very good at retaining water and nutrients that crops will love and thrive in. By then, you could expand your garden and plant in the whole area.

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