Composting can take several forms and there are many different methods and techniques used by people to make the "ideal" compost. While almost all of the information for compost is valuable, trying to take it all in at once can be overwhelming.
We suggest that when trying out a compost pile for the first time you should keep a few basic ideas in mind and forget about the rest. This will result in producing pretty good compost with the least amount of stress and time.
If you find you enjoy the finer composting techniques and methods, then feel free to dig into the rest of the literature out there. For the rest of us, this will be all the information we need to produce great compost year after year.
Basic Steps of Composting at Home
At the most basic level, composting is simply creating an environment that is conducive for the breakdown of organic materials. For the home garden, this happens in the form of a compost pile.
Creating a compost pile is very easy. You simply want to pile up organic material containing carbon and nitrogen, keep it moist, and occasionally mix it up to let some oxygen in. After severals weeks to several months you will have finished compost.
Your Compost Bin
While you don't need a bin or structure to hold your compost pile it does help to keep it in place and looking tidier. The simplest compost bins consist of wooden palates staked into the ground. You can also purchase pre-made compost bins, though they don't seem very cost effective. Compost tumblers
can be very effective and make composting more efficient.
Your compost bin should be around 3' x 3' x 3'. This allows a big enough pile to heat up properly but is still small enough that you will be easily able to turn it. You'll want to put your compost bin or compost pile in a partially sunny location that is level and drains well.
Your Compost Pile Mix
When making your compost pile you will want to have materials containing both carbon and nitrogen. The carbon provides food for the bacteria and the nitrogen provides energy and heat in the compost pile.
You want to aim for a ratio of about 4-8 parts carbon per 1 part of nitrogen. As long as the ratio is close your compost pile should be fine, so don't stress about it too much. When adding your compost materials, try to layer the carbon and nitrogen materials, and spray the compost pile after every level to keep it moist.
What Goes into Your Compost Pile
Sources of Carbon for Your Compost Pile
Hay and Straw
Sawdust and wood chips
Old Potting Mix
Sources of Nitrogen for the Compost Pile
What Does Not Go Into the Compost Pile
Dog or Human waste
Ashes (some can be added but they affect the pH of the compost)
Maintenance of Your Compost Pile
Your compost pile will do most of the work itself. The only real maintenance you have to do is to mix up the pile occasionally. This helps to let oxygen into the pile which speeds up the composting process. When mixing the pile, you should also spray it with water to keep it damp.
You can turn your compost pile as often as you'd like but remember that the more you turn it (up to about once or twice a day) the faster it will finish composting. Turning your compost pile every few days should be sufficient to keep it composting at a nice rate.
When the Compost Pile is Done
You'll be able to tell when the compost pile is done when the compost resembles rich dirt and you can no longer recognize the individual materials that you initially put in. The compost pile will normally be about half the volume of the initial pile. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months depending on the materials, the weather, and how often you turn it.
You can now use the compost for fertilization, mulching, or any other normal use of compost.
One great way to speed up the composting process is to shred the materials before you put them in. A newspaper might take 2 weeks to compost but if you shred it first it might just take a few days.
Keep your compost pile damp but not wet. This helps create the ideal environment for composting.
If your compost pile starts to smell, be sure to turn it more regularly. The aeration process will help foster the growth of good bacteria which will force out the stinky bacteria. You can also add some more of the carbon rich materials to your compost pile.
Use some of your compost to make your own compost tea