Friday, February 22, 2008

How to make Compost. A composting guide.

I know recently I have spoke about composting as a way to help reduce garbage and to help the garden and such. I have yet to explain how to make compost. The reason being, I have been looking for a good article that will explain in detail how to make compost, what can be composted, what shouldn't and so forth.

Today I found the information.

Below is a mirror of the content on this website. They created it, I am just mirroring so my readers can learn how to make compost and to have a mirror in case the original site goes down, page moved, etc. The information is a bit long, but well worth the read.

Why Make Compost?

Compost is one of nature's best mulches and soil amendments, and
you can use it instead of commercial fertilizers. Best of all, compost
is cheap. You can make it without spending a cent. Using compost
improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the
soil's water-holding capacity. Compost loosens clay soils and helps
sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility
and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter
provided in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keeps
the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Nitrogen, potassium,
and phosphorus will be produced naturally by the feeding of microorganisms,
so few if any soil amendments will need to be added.

Most gardeners have long understood the value of this rich, dark,
earthy material in improving the soil and creating a healthful environment
for plants. Understanding how to make and use compost is in the public
interest, as the problem of waste disposal climbs toward a crisis
level. Landfills are brimming, and new sites are not likely to be
easily found. For this reason there is an interest in conserving existing
landfill space and in developing alternative methods of dealing with
waste. Don't throw away materials when you can use them to improve
your lawn and garden! Start composting instead.

Our hands our being forced to deal creatively with our own yard waste,
as one by one, cities are refusing to haul off our leaves and grass
clippings. About one third of the space in landfills is taken up with
organic waste from our yards and kitchens, just the type of material
that can be used in compost. With a small investment in time, you
can contribute to the solution to a community problem, while at the
same time enriching the soil and improving the health of the plants
on your property.

Want the super quick version of how to make compost? Visit our Composting
Tips page

The Compost Decomposition Process

Compost is the end product of a complex feeding pattern involving
hundreds of different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, worms,
and insects. What remains after these organisms break down organic
materials is the rich, earthy substance your garden will love. Composting
replicates nature's natural system of breaking down materials on the
forest floor. In every forest, grassland, jungle, and garden, plants
die, fall to the ground, and decay. They are slowly dismantled by
the small organisms living in the soil. Eventually these plant parts
disappear into the brown crumbly forest floor. This humus keeps the
soil light and fluffy.

Humus is our goal when we start composting. By providing the right
environment for the organisms in the compost pile, it is possible
to produce excellent compost. We usually want to organize and hasten
Mother Nature's process. By knowing the optimum conditions of heat,
moisture, air, and materials, we can speed up the composting process.
Besides producing more good soil faster, making the compost faster
creates heat which will destroy plant diseases and weed seeds in the

Compost Materials

Almost any organic material is suitable for a compost pile. The pile
needs a proper ratio of carbon-rich materials, or "browns,"
and nitrogen-rich materials, or "greens." Among the brown
materials are dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. Nitrogen materials
are fresh or green, such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps

Mixing certain types of materials or changing the proportions can
make a difference in the rate of decomposition. Achieving the best
mix is more an art gained through experience than an exact science.
The ideal ratio approaches 25 parts browns to 1 part greens. Judge
the amounts roughly equal by weight. Too much carbon will cause the
pile to break down too slowly, while too much nitrogen can cause odor.
The carbon provides energy for the microbes, and the nitrogen provides

Leaves represent a large percentage of total yard waste. If you
can grind them in a gas or electric
chipper shredder
or mow over them, they will reduce in size
making them easier to store until you can use them in the pile,
and they will decompose faster - an issue with larger leaves. They
are loaded with minerals brought up from the tree roots and are
a natural source of carbon. A few leaf species such as live oak,
southern magnolia, and holly trees are too tough and leathery for
easy composting. Avoid all parts of the black walnut tree as they
contain a plant poison that survives composting. Eucalyptus leaves
can be toxic to other plants. And avoid using poison oak, poison
ivy, and sumac.

Pine Needles need to be chopped or shredded, as
they decompose slowly. They are covered with a thick, waxy coating.
In very large quantities, they can acidify your compost, which would
be a good thing if you have alkaline soils.

Grass Clippings break down quickly and contain
as much nitrogen as manure. Since fresh grass clippings will clump
together, become anerobic, and start to smell, mix them with plenty
of brown material. If you have a lot of grass clippings to compost,
spread them on the driveway or other surface to bake in the sun
for at least a day. Once it begins to turn pale or straw-like, it
can be used without danger of souring. Avoid grass clippings that
contain pesticide or herbicide residue, unless a steady rain has
washed the residue from the grass blades.

Kitchen Refuse includes melon rinds, carrot peelings,
tea bags, apple cores, banana peels - almost everything that cycles
through your kitchen. The average household produces more than 200
pounds of kitchen waste every year. You can successfully compost
all forms of kitchen waste. However, meat, meat products, dairy
products, and high-fat foods like salad dressings and peanut butter,
can present problems. Meat scraps and the rest will decompose eventually,
but will smell bad and attract pests. Egg shells are a wonderful
addition, but decompose slowly, so should be crushed. All additions
to the compost pile will decompose more quickly if they are chopped
up some before adding.

compost pail

To collect your kitchen waste, you can keep a small compost
in the kitchen to bring to the pile every few days. Keep
a lid on the container to discourage insects. When you add kitchen
scraps to the compost pile, cover them with about 8" of brown
material to reduce visits by flies or critters.

Wood Ashes from a wood burning stove or fireplace
can be added to the compost pile. Ashes are alkaline, so add no
more than 2 gallon-sized buckets-full to a pile with 3'x3'x3' dimensions.
They are especially high in potassium. Don't use coal ashes, as
they usually contain large amounts of sulfur and iron that can injure
your plants. Used charcoal briquettes don't decay much at all, so
it's best not to use them.

Garden Refuse should make the trip to the pile.
All of the spent plants, thinned seedlings, and deadheaded flowers
can be included. Most weeds and weed seeds are killed when the pile
reaches an internal temperature above 130 degrees, but some may
survive. To avoid problems don't compost weeds with persistent root
systems, and weeds that are going to seed.

Spoiled Hay or Straw makes an excellent carbon
base for a compost pile, especially in a place where few leaves
are available. Hay contains more nitrogen than straw. They may contain
weed seeds, so the pile must have a high interior temperature. The
straw's little tubes will also keep the pile breathing.

Manure is one of the finest materials you can
add to any compost pile. It contains large amounts of both nitrogen
and beneficial microbes. Manure for composting can come from bats,
sheep, ducks, pigs, goats, cows, pigeons, and any other vegetarian
animal. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid manure from carnivores,
as it can contain dangerous pathogens. Most manures are considered
"hot" when fresh, meaning it is so rich in nutrients that
it can burn the tender roots of young plants or overheat a compost
pile, killing off earthworms and friendly bacteria. If left to age
a little, however, these materials are fine to use.

Manure is easier to transport and safer to use
if it is rotted, aged, or composted before it's used. Layer manure
with carbon-rich brown materials such as straw or leaves to keep
your pile in balance.

Seaweed is an excellent source of nutrient-rich
composting material. Use the hose to wash off the salt before sending
it to the compost pile.

The list of organic materials which can be added to the compost pile
is long. There are industrial and commercial waste products you may
have access to in abundance. The following is a partial list: corncobs,
cotton waste, restaurant or farmer's market scraps, grapevine waste,
sawdust, greensand, hair, hoof and horn meal, hops, peanut shells,
paper and cardboard, rock dust, sawdust, feathers, cottonseed meal,
blood meal, bone meal, citrus wastes, coffee, alfalfa, and ground

Following is a chart listing common composting materials

Table taken out due to problems, see original article for table

Compost Site Selection

Any pile of organic matter will eventually rot, but a well-chosen
site can speed up the process. Look for a level, well-drained area.
If you plan to add kitchen scraps, keep it accessible to the back
door. Don't put it so far away you'll neglect the pile. In cooler
latitudes, keep the pile in a sunny spot to trap solar heat. Look
for some shelter to protect the pile from freezing cold winds which
could slow down the decaying process. In warm, dry latitudes, shelter
the pile in a shadier spot so it doesn't dry out too quickly.

Build the pile over soil or lawn rather than concrete or asphalt,
to take advantage of the earthworms, beneficial microbes, and other
decomposers, which will migrate up and down as the seasons change.
Uncovered soil also allows for drainage. If tree roots are extending
their roots into the pile, turn it frequently so they can't make headway.

Look for a spot that allows you to compost discretely, especially
if you have neighboring yards in close proximity. Aim for distance
and visual barriers between the pile and the neighbors.

Seasonal Schedule for Composting

An effective storage system is the key to successfully using the
materials each season provides. In the fall, collect and shred fallen
leaves. The best use for them now is as mulch for trees, shrubs, and
garden beds. Excess leaves can be stored - leaves from 100 bags can
be shredded and put in a 4'x4'x4' container. Some decomposition will
take place over the winter, but not a significant amount. Continue
to put kitchen scraps in the pile, but it's not necessary to turn
in cold climes. If you want your compost pile to stay active during
the winter, you'll want an enclosed bin with insulated sides. A black
bin situated in a sunny spot can help trap solar radiation during
cold spells. Keep the pile as large as possible so that heat generated
from decomposition will endure. You can also stack bales of straw
along the sides of your bin to help retain the heat.

In areas with a cold winter, spring is the best time to start the
compost pile in earnest. There's an abundance of grass clippings and
trimmings. Summer is the time the compost pile is working at its peak
range of decomposition, especially if it has been turned once or twice.
Cover and store the finished compost, or use it, and start another
batch. With enough organic waste, you can produce several batches
of highly managed compost during the summer.

Making Compost

Compost can range from passive - allowing the materials to sit and
rot on their own - to highly managed. Whenever you intervene in the
process, you're managing the compost. How you compost is determined
by your goal. If you're eager to produce as much compost as possible
to use regularly in your garden, you may opt for a more hands-on method
of composting. If your goal is to dispose of yard waste, a passive
method is your answer.

Passive composting involves the least amount of time and energy on
your part. This is done by collecting organic materials in a freestanding
pile. It might take a long time (a year or two), but eventually organic
materials in any type of a pile will break down into finished compost.
More attractive than a big pile of materials sitting in your yard
is a 3-sided enclosure made of fencing, wire, or concrete blocks,
which keeps the pile neater and less unsightly. Add grass clippings,
leaves, and kitchen scraps (always cover these with 8" of other
material). The pile will shrink quickly as the materials compress
and decompose. Wait a year or two before checking the bottom of the
bin for finished compost. When it's ready, shovel the bottom section
into a wheelbarrow and add it to your garden beds. Continue to add
greens and browns to have a good supply of finished compost at the
ready. After the first few years, most simple piles produce a few
cubic feet of finished compost yearly.

Managed composting involves active participation, ranging from turning
the pile occasionally to a major commitment of time and energy. If
you use all the techniques of managing the pile, you can get finished
compost in 3-4 weeks. Choose the techniques that reflect how much
you want to intervene in the decomposition process and that will be
a function of how fast you want to produce compost.

The speed with which you produce finished compost will be determined
by how you collect materials, whether you chop them up, how you mix
them together, and so on. Achieving a good balance of carbon and nitrogen
is easier if you build the pile all at once. Layering is traditional,
but mixing the materials works as well.

Shredded organic materials heat up rapidly, decompose quickly, and
produce a uniform compost. The decomposition rate increases with the
size of the composting materials. If you want the pile to decay faster,
chop up large fibrous materials.

You can add new materials on an ongoing basis to an already established
pile. Most single-bin gardeners build an initial pile and add more
ingredients on top as they become available.

The temperature of the managed pile is important - it indicates
the activity of the decomposition process. The easiest way to track
the temperature inside the pile is by feeling it. If it is warm
or hot, everything is fine. If it is the same temperature as the
outside air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need
to add more nitrogen (green) materials such as grass clippings,
kitchen waste, or manure.

compost thermometer

Use a compost
to easily see how well your compost is doing. They
are inexpensive, and quite convenient to have.

If the pile becomes too dry, the decay process will slow down. Organic
waste needs water to decompose. The rule of thumb is to keep the pile
as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

If you're building your pile with very wet materials, mix them with
dry materials as you build. If all the material is very dry, soak
it with a hose as you build. Whenever you turn the pile, check it
for moisture and add water as necessary.

Too much water is just as detrimental as the lack of water. In an
overly wet pile, water replaces the air, creating an anaerobic environment,
slowing decomposition.

Air circulation is an important element in a compost pile. Most of
the organisms that decompose organic matter are aerobic - they need
air to survive. There are several ways to keep your pile breathing.
Try not to use materials that are easily compacted such as ashes or
sawdust, without mixing them with a coarser material first. People
who build large piles often add tree branches or even ventilation
tubes vertically into different parts of the pile, to be shaken occasionally,
to maximize air circulation.

A more labor-intensive way to re-oxygenate the pile is to turn the
pile by hand, using a large garden fork. The simplest way is to
move the material from the pile and restack it alongside. A multiple-bin
system makes this efficient, in that you only handle the material
once. Otherwise, you can put the material back into the same pile.
The object is to end up with the material that was on the outside
of the original pile, resting in the middle of the restacked pile.
This procedure aerates the pile and will promote uniform decomposition.

compost aerating tool

This is an excellent
tool for aerating and mixing compost

The following information is for the highly managed pile and the
optimum finished compost in the shortest amount of time. Decomposition
occurs most efficiently when the temperature inside the pile is between
104 degrees F and 131 degrees F. Compost thermometers are available
at garden shops and nurseries. It is best not to turn the pile while
it is between these temperatures, but rather when the temperature
is below 104 degrees F or above 131 degrees F. This keeps the pile
operating at its peak. Most disease pathogens die when exposed to
131 degrees for 10-15 minutes, though some weed seeds are killed only
when they're heated to between 140 degrees and 150 degrees. If weed
seeds are a problem, let the pile reach 150 degrees during the first
heating period, then drop back down to the original temperature range.
Maintaining temperatures above 131 degrees can kill the decomposing

The Compost Bin

compost tumbler and tea maker
australian tumbling composterbig round composter
urban composter
Click on photos to get more information and pricing about each compost
bin, or visit our online Compost
Bin Store

To save space, hasten decomposition, and keep the yard looking neat,
contain the compost in some sort of structure. A wide variety of composting
structures can be purchased, or made from a variety of materials.
They can be as simple or complex as desired.

Yard wastes can be composted either in simple holding units, where
they will sit undisturbed for slow decomposition, or in tumbling compost
bins, which produce finished compost as quickly as just a few weeks
with a good mix of materials.

Holding units are simple containers used to store garden waste in
an organized way until these materials break down. A holding unit
is the easiest way to compost. It only requires placing wastes into
a pile or bin as they are generated. Non-woody materials such as grass
clippings, crop wastes, garden weeds, and leaves work best in these
systems. A holding unit can be a cylinder formed of wire (chicken
wire is too weak to hold up to the bulk), or wood scraps. Openings
in the sides need to be large enough to permit plenty of air, but
small enough to contain the materials that are composting.

Turning units are typically a series of bins used for building and
turning active compost piles. A turning unit allows wastes to be conveniently
mixed for aeration on a regular basis.

Read about why I like compost tumblers.

Browse garden
, electric
, reel
, compost
at Clean
Air Gardening

Home gardeners are constantly inventing creative and inexpensive
ways to hold their compost - for example, bins made from wire mesh
or from shipping pallets.

Some gardeners lash together four pallets, leaving one corner loosely
attached to act as a door. Others install posts in four corners, nail
the pallets to the posts to form three sides of the bin, and wire
the last pallet with some slack to allow access.

Make a simple, three-sided bin by stacking concrete or cinder blocks.
Leave the fourth side open for turning the pile or for access to the
finished compost.

Renewed interest in recycling has prompted a great increase in
the types of composting systems available commercially. Consider
the advantages and disadvantages of each type of compost
to choose the best one for your yard, budget, and life-style.
They range from wire containers to plastic bins and tumblers. Composters
are available online from and from our online
composter store.

Learn about making compost
tea on this page


Making compost is really quite easy, but having too much of a certain
material or letting the compost get too wet or too dry can cause problems.

Troubleshooting Composting Problems

Table taken out due to problems, see original article for table

Vermicomposting: Composting with Worms

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is different than traditional

Worm composting is a process that uses red earthworms, also commonly
called redworms, to consume organic waste, producing castings (an
odor-free compost product for use as mulch), soil conditioner, and
topsoil additive. Naturally occurring organisms, such as bacteria
and millipedes, also assist in the aerobic degradation of the organic
material. Commercially available worm
composting bins
make it fairly simple to do your own vermicomposting

worm composting bin

You can learn more about vermicomposting on our worm
composting page

Using Compost

Finished compost is dark brown, crumbly, and is earthy-smelling.
Small pieces of leaves or other ingredients may be visible. If the
compost contains many materials which are not broken down, it is only
partly decomposed. This product can be used as a mulch, but adding
partly decomposed compost to the soil can reduce the amount of nitrogen
available to the plants. The microorganisms will continue to do the
work of decomposing, but will use soil nitrogen for their own growth,
restricting the nitrogen's availability to plants growing nearby.

Allow partly decomposed compost particles to break down further
or separate them out before using compost on growing plants. Or
add extra nitrogen such as manure, to ensure that growing plants
will not suffer from a nitrogen deficiency. Compost is great for
flower gardening,
herb gardening,
organic lawn care
and vegetable

Compost serves primarily as a soil conditioner, whether it's spread
in a layer on the soil surface or is dug in. A garden soil regularly
amended with compost is better able to hold air and water, drains
more efficiently, and contains a nutrient reserve that plants can
draw on. The amended soil also tends to produce plants with fewer
insect and disease problems. The compost encourages a larger population
of beneficial soil microorganisms, which control harmful microorganisms.
It also fosters healthy plant growth, and healthy plants are better
able to resist pests.

One inch thick is enough to spread on your garden beds. Compost continues
to decompose, so eventually the percentage of organic matter in the
soil begins to decline. In northern climates, compost is mostly decomposed
after two years in the soil. In southern climates, it disappears even
faster and should be replenished every year.

To bolster poor soil with little organic matter, spread 2 to 3 inches
of compost over a newly dug surface. Then work the compost into the
top 6 inches of earth.

A garden soil that has been well mulched and amended periodically
requires only about a ½ inch layer of compost yearly to maintain
its quality.

Some people recommend late fall as a good time to spread compost
over a garden bed, and cover it with a winter mulch, such as chopped
leaves. By spring, soil organisms will have worked the compost into
the soil. Others recommend spreading compost two weeks before planting
time in the spring. There is really no wrong time to spread it. The
benefits remain the same.

If your supply of compost is really limited, consider side-dressing,
a way to use compost sparingly by strategically placing it around
certain plants or along certain rows. This is best done in late spring
and early summer so that the rapidly growing plants can derive the
maximum benefit from the compost.

To side-dress a plant, work the compost into the soil around the
plant, starting about an inch from the stem, out to the drip line,
taking care not to disturb the roots. For shallow rooted plants, leave
the compost on the soil surface. A 2" layer works best when left
on top.

For new lawns, a 2 to 3" layer of compost is best when planting.
Once the new lawn is established, a ¼ to ½" layer
yearly will maintain the quality of the soil.

An existing lawn top-dressed with a ½" layer of compost
every year or two will be healthier than an unamended lawn. Fall is
the best time to apply the compost, although an application in early
spring is almost as effective.

A compost mulch can benefit trees and shrubs just as it does other
plants. Spread a ½" to 1" layer of compost on the
bare soil under the tree as far as the drip line. Then cover with
a 2-3" layer of some other kind of organic mulch, such as chopped
leaves or pine needles. The mulch will hold the compost in place and
keep it from drying out.

Adding compost to the planting hole of small perennial plants is
valuable, particularly perennial food plants. Annuals will also benefit
from a dose of compost at planting time.

Compost is the ultimate garden fertilizer. It contains virtually
all the nutrients a living plant needs and delivers them in a slow-release
manner over a period of years. Compost made with a wide variety of
ingredients will provide an even more nutritious meal to your growing

Compost is the best material available to enliven your soil no matter
where you live. Farmers around the world will testify that healthier
soil grows healthier plants that naturally resist disease, insects,
and other environmental pressures. Adding compost to your garden is
a long-term investment - it becomes a permanent part of the soil structure,
helping to feed future plantings in years to come.