How to Compost Properly
In the winter months, it can seem as though there is very little to do in the garden. One very beneficial thing you can do as you prepare for spring is to begin composting your organic material to create a rich soil conditioner that will feed and support your garden all year long. Composting is a process that can take months, so plan ahead to ensure your compost is ready when you begin to plant.
The Process of Composting
Composting is an aerobic process in which microorganisms use oxygen to break down organic matter and produce CO2, ammonia, water, and humus - the stable end product that is beneficial to plants, crops, and lawns.
You may have heard that compost needs both “brown” and “green” material to be successful and indeed, in order to compost properly, 4 key ingredients must be present:
- Carbon provides the energy and heat needed for the composting process. Carbon can be found in brown, dry materials such as dead leaves, cardboard, and paper. Even during winter, your compost pile will produce heat as the decomposition process takes place.
- Nitrogen allows the microorganisms to oxidize the present carbon and reproduce. Materials that are high in nitrogen are typically green and wet, including fruit and vegetable scraps and grass clippings.
- Oxygen aids the decomposition process by oxidizing the carbon. In order to maintain adequate oxygen levels, the compost should be turned every couple of days using a pitchfork or shovel.
- Water is the final key ingredient in compost production. Ideally, composting materials should be between 40%-60% water. If too much water is present, it will result in anaerobic conditions and there will not be enough oxygen. If the ratio of water is too low, it will take much longer for the materials to decompose.
Reminder: If you are using kitchen scraps in your compost, be sure to avoid adding any animal products. The microbes will not be able to break down meats, oils, or dairy and these products can also produce a rotten smell and attract unwanted animal visitors.
The Case for Worms
Worms are an extremely valuable participant in the act of composting. Although they are not required, they can aid the process by transforming organic material into a valuable soil addition called vermicompost or worm castings. Red wiggler worms are the most common variety used for composting and are readily available. If you are using worms to compost, you will want to compost inside a container to keep an eye on the worm population and prevent their escape from the compost pile.
How to Make Compost
To begin the process of composting, you’ll need to find a suitable area for your compost pile or compost bin. Ideally, you’ll want to choose an area not too far from your garden as you’ll need to transport your finished compost to your plants. As a rule of thumb, your compost pile should be 3 feet high, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. If you are using a container for your compost bin, be sure to choose one large enough to accommodate these dimensions.
Once you’ve selected your composting spot, combine your collected green and brown materials that are high in carbon and nitrogen. An ideal ratio is 3 parts brown material to 1 part green.
Next, use a hose to water your compost. The compost pile should become moist but not too damp, similar to the consistency of a wet sponge. As you continue to monitor your compost, you will need to add more water when the materials become too dry.
Throughout the weeks that follow, you’ll need to add oxygen to the mixture by turning your compost using a pitchfork or shovel. Turning your compost should be done at least once a week for best results. Turning the compost will help the process occur more quickly and will reduce any potential odors.
After 2-4 months, your compost will stop giving off heat and will become dark brown and dry. You should not be able to see any of the original ingredients, such as food scraps or cardboard.
You are now ready to use your compost! Find all of the equipment you need to get gardening here, or stop by your local Southern States.