February 16, 2011

Basic Composting - Turning Waste into Food.

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One of the basic fundamentals of any organic garden is a good composting system.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that every gardener should be making compost, simply because it's so easy to do and will turn a large portion of what many see as rubbish into food for your garden. Even if it is the only adjustment that we make to our lifestyle it is still a massive reduction in the amount of waste that ends up in landfill and the environmental benefits from that are great. Not only that, once you understand the basics of composting it's so easy to do that you will wonder why you didn't start doing it years ago.

There are various compost systems available to suit any garden, from the smallest courtyard or patio garden to large commercial systems that can handle hundreds of tons of organic matter at a time. The system that I am going to describe here is perhaps the most basic system of all and takes up about 2 square metres (6 square feet).

What is Compost?
Compost is Humus, which is decomposed organic matter. All organic matter (including us) will end up as compost eventually. The point of the compost heap is to speed up the process and maximise the nutrient value of the end product. The organic matter should be broken down to the point that it is friable, a rich dark colour, earthy smelling and  you can't pick out any of the original ingredients. Good compost is full of nutrients and beneficial micro and macro organisms. It is safe to apply to your garden at any time of year without the risk of  burning plants or polluting water. Good compost should never be too wet and gluggy, or smell sour or bad. You can dig compost into the soil before planting or use it as a surface mulch or even use it as a seed raising or potting mix. It is one of nature's miracle products and is a part of the natural cycle. Adding compost to your soil is adding organic matter and every type of soil is improved by adding organic matter.

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Getting Started
The first thing to do is look around your garden and find a spot for your compost heap. A shady spot* near to a water supply and close to your vegetable garden is ideal. It should also be reasonably close to your household so that it's easy to add your green kitchen wastes but not so close that smells and insects (there shouldn't be any) become an issue. If you have spot like this but it is weedy or covered with grass, mulch the surface with newspaper or cardboard to keep them out of your heap. These organic mulches will break down in time but not before they have done the job of killing off the weeds underneath.
* Avoid positioning your compost heap under pine or eucalyptus trees as the soil under these trees will not have the beneficial organisms required for making good compost.

Once you have your spot picked out, you might like to think about about making a bin (or two) to contain a good sized compost pile. A good sized pile should be at least 1 cubic metre (3 cubic feet). A second bin of the same size positioned next to the first allows you turn the near-finished compost from one bin to the other and start a new heap in the empty bin. If you have plenty of space available you can get by without a bin, as long as your pile is the minimum size. You can make a bin from anything really, such as chicken wire or untreated timber pallets. Whatever you use, it's important that the bin allows air to enter and circulate through the compost heap. This is called an aerobic compost heap and the air moving through the heap will minimise smells and requires less turning to produce a 'sweet' smelling compost.

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A simple compost bin made from recycled pallets.

Compost Ingredients
A good compost heap will have a mix of organic ingredients, air and a small amount of moisture. The organic ingredients are usually classed into two groupings known as greens and browns. Greens are materials which are high in nitrogen and browns are materials high in carbon. Some examples of green ingredients are animal manures, worm castings, lawn clippings, alfalfa, clover, seaweed, coffee grounds, (raw) vegetable scraps and green weeds. Some examples of brown ingredients are dry woody weeds, straw, shredded cardboard and paper, wood ash,  corn stalks and egg shells. Wood ash and egg shells are very good to add to a compost heap as the wood ash contains the element pottasium as potash and the egg shells are almost pure calcium. It's important to keep a compost heap moist but not too wet, so if you are adding a lot of dry ingredients you will need to add enough water to moisten them as well. Its also best to shred the woody ingredients as much as possible to help them break down faster.

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All organic matter is made up of substantial amounts of carbon (C) combined with lesser amounts of nitrogen (N). The balance of these two elements in an organism is called the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio). For best performance, the compost pile, or more to the point the composting microorganisms, require the correct proportion of carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein production. The fastest way to produce fertile, sweet-smelling compost is to maintain a C:N ratio somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 25-30:1. If the C:N ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the C:N ratio is too low (excess nitrogen) you will end up with a stinky pile.

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Some common composting materials and their C:N ratios

There are a few things that it is best not to add to you compost heap, such as meat and cooked vegetable scaps as these will tend to rot rather than compost, causing smells and attracting flies. Wood ash should be free from large lumps of charcoal as it is virtually pure carbon and will not break down. I would personally avoid adding too many pine needles and eucalyptus leaves as they contain certain chemicals which can inhibit plant growth. I would also avoid adding any purchased ingredients, mainly because it's not necessary in most cases. If you need an activator to get the break-down process going, there are some plants such as Comfrey and fresh seaweed or water weed that will help kickstart the process for free. If you have some compost from a previous batch, it's good to add some to the new heap as that contains the micro organisms that do the actual work.

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Comfrey is an excellent addition to the compost heap

Building the Pile
I like to build my compost pile on bare ground or on an organic mulch base that will break down as this allows soil macro-organisms such as earthworms to enter the pile and help with the process. Usually I will start with a layer of brown materials and damp it down, then add a layer of green materials such as lawn clippings, then another layer of brown and so on. It doesn't matter if it takes some time to build up a full sized heap but it's good to have a stockpile of materials on hand when you start a new heap to help get the volume needed for the microbes to get busy. As long as you keep the C:N ratio in mind as you go, it's really not necessary to be too precise about what gets added or when. If you live in a high rainfall area it would pay to have some kind of cover for the compost heap to keep it from getting too wet or leaching too many nutrients into the soil. A cover may also be required if the heap is exposed to the sun at the hottest part of the day, to keep it from getting too dry. If you are using your compost to grow vegetables and you are eating them you will soon have full piles before you know it. If you are running short of brown materials from the garden then you can add more newspaper or cardboard instead. Most brown ingredients will need to be moistened as they go on the heap but green ingredients tend to have enough water within them to not need extra. Once you have reached the desired size, the pile can be left to do it's own thing for a while but it will need to be turned over every few weeks to help with aeration. (Turning also helps to amalgamate the ingredients.)

If you find that you have a lot of weeds that have set seed or you have fruit that may be infected by fruit-fly, it is better to not add them straight into the compost heap but rather to put them in a plastic bag and leave them in the full sun until the material has started to rot down. This should kill any weed seeds or insect larvae. I would bag all windfall fruit for solar treatment just as a precaution anyway.

Making compost is an organic process, so a compost heap will evolve over time and you can adjust what is happening within the heap by adding more green or brown material to adjust the ratio. You can tell when a compost heap is working well because a certain amount of heat will be generated by the process so if the heap is cold in the middle it is not active and needs more green material. If it feels too hot then it needs more brown materials. If it starts to smell then it needs more aeration either by turning the heap or poking a sharpened stake into the heap to create air holes. The time it takes to make good compost will depend upon a number of factors such as your local climate and the C:N ratio of the pile. It can vary quite deal but I tend to take the philosophical view and just let nature take it's course.
As I said, this is the basic composting method for an average back yard. There are other composting systems to suit pretty much any situation. I might discuss some of these in future posts.

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Further reading
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting by Chris McLaughlin
The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin
Let It Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell
The Rodale Book of Composting
Easy Composters You Can Build by Nick Noyes

Related Sites

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