All About Composting
Compost is a rich and crumbly blend of partially decomposed organic material that does wonderful things for your garden.
Building and maintaining a compost pile is the surest, easiest way to become a better gardener. Not only will you be producing the best possible food for your garden, but by watching leaves, eggshells, orange rinds, and grass clippings become transformed into rich compost filled with earthworms and other soil creatures, you’ll be learning what healthy soil is all about.
Compost improves soil structure. Most gardeners don’t start with great soil. Whether yours is hard and compacted, sandy, stony, heavy, or wet, adding compost will improve its texture, water-holding capacity, and fertility. Your soil will gradually become fluffy and brown—the ideal home for healthy plants.
Compost provides a balanced source of plant nutrients. Even if you are lucky enough to have great soil, you can’t expect that soil to remain rich and productive without replenishing the nutrients that are consumed each growing season. No commercial fertilizer, even one that is totally organic, provides the full spectrum of nutrients that you get with compost. The nutrients are available gradually, as your plants need them, over a period of months or years. The microorganisms in the compost will also help your plants absorb nutrients from fertilizers more efficiently.
Compost stimulates beneficial organisms. Compost is teeming with all kinds of microorganisms and soil fauna that help convert soil nutrients into a form that can be readily absorbed by your plants. The microorganisms, enzymes, vitamins and natural antibiotics that are present in compost actually help prevent many soil pathogens from harming your plants. Earthworms, millipedes, and other macro-organisms tunnel through your soil, opening up passageways for air and water to reach your plants’ roots.
Compost is garden insurance. Even very experienced gardeners often have soil that is less than perfect. Adding compost moderates pH and fertility problems, so you can concentrate on the pleasures of gardening, not the science of your soil’s chemical composition. Unlike organic or inorganic fertilizers, which need to be applied at the right time and in the right amount, compost can be applied at any time and in any amount. You can’t really over-apply it. Plants use exactly what they need, when they need it.
Can a gardener ever have enough compost? It’s doubtful. Compost is the perfect thing to spread around when you are creating a new garden, seeding a new lawn area, or planting a new tree. Compost can be sprinkled around plants during the growing season or used as a mulch in your perennial gardens. You can add compost to your flower boxes and deck planters. You can also use it to enrich the potting soil for your indoor plants.
How Compost Happens
Organic matter is transformed into compost through the work of microorganisms, soil fauna, enzymes and fungi. When making compost, your job is to provide the best possible environment for these beneficial organisms to do their work. If you do so, the decomposition process works very rapidly—sometimes in as little as two weeks. If you don’t provide the optimum environment, decomposition will still happen, but it may take from several months to several years. The trick to making an abundance of compost in a short time is to balance the following four things:
Carbon. Carbon-rich materials are the energy food for microorganisms. You can identify high-carbon plant materials because they are dry, tough, or fibrous, and tan or brown in color. Examples are dry leaves, straw, rotted hay, sawdust, shredded paper, and cornstalks.
Nitrogen. High-nitrogen materials provide the protein-rich components that microorganisms require to grow and multiply. Freshly pulled weeds, fresh grass clippings, over-ripe fruits and vegetables, kitchen scraps and other moist green matter are the sorts of nitrogen-rich materials you’ll probably have on hand. Other high-protein organic matter includes kelp meal, seaweed, manure and animal by-products like blood or bone meal.
Water. Moisture is very important for the composting process. But too much moisture will drown the microorganisms, and too little will dehydrate them. A general rule of thumb is to keep the material in your compost pile as moist as a well-wrung sponge. If you need to add water (unchlorinated is best), insert your garden hose into the middle of the pile in several places, or sprinkle the pile with water next time you turn it. Using an enclosed container or covering your pile with a tarp will make it easier to maintain the right moisture level.
Oxygen. To do their work most efficiently, microorganisms require a lot of oxygen. When your pile is first assembled, there will probably be plenty of air between the layers of materials. But as the microorganisms begin to work, they will start consuming oxygen. Unless you turn or in some way aerate your compost pile, they will run out of oxygen and become sluggish.
Do I Need a Recipe?
Sample Compost Recipes
- 1 part fresh grass clippings
- 1 part dry leaves
- 1 part good garden soil
Spread the ingredients in 3-inch-deep layers to a height of 3 to 4 feet.
- 2 parts fresh grass clippings
- 2 parts straw or spoiled hay
- 1 part good garden soil
Spread ingredients in 4-inch layers, adding water if needed.
- 2 parts dry leaves
- 1 part fresh grass clippings
- 1 part food scraps
Spread ingredients in 4-inch layers, adding water if needed.
Microorganisms and other soil fauna work most efficiently when the ratio of carbon-rich to nitrogen-rich materials in your compost pile is approximately 25:1 (brown to green) but most people find three parts brown and one part green works quite well. In practical terms, if you want to have an active compost pile, you should include lots of high-carbon “brown” materials (such as straw, wood chips, or dry leaves) and a lesser amount of high-nitrogen “green” materials (such as grass clippings, freshly pulled weeds, or kitchen scraps).
If you have an excess of carbon-rich materials and not enough nitrogen-rich materials, your pile may take years to decompose (there is not enough protein for those microbes!). If your pile has too much nitrogen and not enough carbon, your pile will also decompose very slowly (not enough for the microbes to eat!), and it will probably be soggy and smelly along the way.
But don’t worry about determining the exact carbon content of a material or achieving a precise 25:1 ratio. Composting doesn’t need to be a competitive, goal-oriented task. All organic matter breaks down eventually, no matter what you do. If you simply use about 3 times as much “brown” materials as “green” materials, you’ll be off to a great start. Take a look at the sample recipes and check the chart of common compost materials. With experience, you’ll get a sense for what works best.
Compost Gets Hot
Common Compost Ingredients
- corncobs and stalks
- pine needles
- sawdust or wood shavings
- vegetable stalks
- dry leaves
- coffee grounds
- fruit wastes
- grass clippings
- feathers or hair
- fresh leaves
- kitchen scraps
- fresh weeds
- rotted manure
- alfalfa meal
Ingredients to Spice Up Your Compost Pile
The following materials can be sprinkled onto your compost pile as you build each layer. They will add important nutrients and will help speed up the composting process:
- Super Hot Compost Starter, applied at the rate on the package.
- Garden soil or finished compost (high in microorganisms), 1/2 shovelful on each layer
- Bone meal, blood meal, or alfalfa meal (high in nitrogen), 1/2 shovelful on each layer
- Fish waste or manure (high in nitrogen), a shovelful on each layer
- Wood stove or fireplace ashes (high in potash and carbon), a shovelful on each layer
- Crushed rock dust (rich in minerals/feeds microbes), a shovelful on each layer
Heat is a by-product of intense microbial activity. It indicates that the microorganisms are munching on organic matter and converting it into finished compost. The temperature of your compost pile does not in itself affect the speed or efficiency of the decomposition process. But temperature does determine what types of microbes are active.
There are primarily three types of microbes that work to digest the materials in a compost pile. They each work best in a particular temperature range:
The psychrophiles work in cool temperatures—even as low as 28 degrees F. As they begin to digest some of the carbon-rich materials, they give off heat, which causes the temperature in the pile to rise. When the pile warms to 60 to 70 degrees F, mesophilic bacteria take over. They are responsible for the majority of the decomposition work. If the mesophiles have enough carbon, nitrogen, air, and water, they work so hard that they raise the temperature in the pile to about 100 degrees F. At this point, thermophilic bacteria kick in. It is these bacteria that can raise the temperature high enough to sterilize the compost and kill disease-causing organisms and weed seeds. Three to five days of 155 degrees F. is enough for the thermophiles to do their best work.
Getting your compost pile “hot” (140 to 160 degrees F.) is not critical, but it does mean that your compost will be finished and usable within a month or so. These high temperatures also kill most weed seeds, as well as harmful pathogens that can cause disease problems. Most people don’t bother charting the temperature curve in their compost pile. They just try to get a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen, keep the pile moist and well aerated, and wait until everything looks pretty well broken down.
Commercial activators can help raise the temperature in your compost pile by providing a concentrated dose of microorganisms and protein. Other effective activators that can help to get your pile cooking include humus-rich soil, rotted manure, finished compost, dried blood, and alfalfa meal.
To Turn or Not to Turn
Unless speed is a priority, frequent turning is not necessary. Many people never turn their compost piles. The purpose of turning is to increase oxygen flow for the microorganisms, and to blend undecomposed materials into the center of the pile. If you are managing a hot pile, you’ll probably want to turn your compost every 3 to 5 days, or when the interior temperature dips below about 110 degrees F. Monitor the temperature with a compost thermometer; use garden shovel, fork or a compost aerator to help turn the pile.
After turning, the pile should heat up again, as long as there is still undecomposed material to be broken down. When the temperature stays pretty constant no matter how much you turn the pile, your compost is probably ready. Though turning can speed the composting process, it also releases heat into the air, so you should turn your pile less frequently in cold weather.
There are several ways to help keep your pile well-aerated, without the hassle of turning:
- Build your pile on a raised wood platform or on a pile of branches.
- Make sure there are air vents in the sides of your compost bin.
- Put one or two perforated 4″ plastic pipes in the center of your pile.
Employing worms to make compost is called vermiculture. Manure worms, red worms, and branding worms (the small ones usually sold by commercial breeders) are dynamos when it comes to decomposing organic matter—especially kitchen scraps. The problem is that these worms cannot tolerate high temperatures. Add a handful of them to an active compost pile and they’ll be dead in an hour. Field worms and night crawlers (common garden worms with one big band) are killed at even lower temperatures.
To maintain a separate worm bin for composting food scraps, you need a watertight container that can be kept somewhere that the temperature will remain between 50 and 80 degrees F. all year-round. Ready-made worm bins are available, but you can also make your own. Red worms are available by mail.
Types of Composters
Plastic Stationary Bins. These bins are for continuous rather than batch composting. Most units feature air vents along the sides and are made from recycled plastics, such as our Pyramid Composter. Look for a lid that fits securely, and doors to access finished compost. Size should be approximately 3 feet square.
Tumbling or Rotating Bins. These composters, such as our Dual-Batch Compost Tumbler, are for making batches of compost all at one time. You accumulate organic materials until you have enough to fill the bin, then load it up and rotate it every day or two. If materials are shredded before going into the bin, and you have plenty of nitrogen, you can have finished compost in five weeks or less.
|Wire Bin. Use an 11-foot length of 2-inch x 4-inch x 36-inch welded, medium-gauge fence wire from your local hardware or building supply store. Tie the ends together to form your hoop. A bin this size holds just over one cubic yard of material. Snow fencing can be used in a similar fashion. Another option is our 3-Bin Wire Composter, which holds 48 cubic feet.
|Trash Can Bin. To convert a plastic trash can into a composter, cut off the bottom with a saw. Drill about 24 quarter-inch holes in the sides of the can for good aeration. Bury the bottom of the can from several inches to a foot or more below the soil surface and press the loosened soil around the sides to secure it. Partially burying the composter will make it easier for microorganisms to enter the pile.
|Block or Brick or Stone Bin. Lay the blocks, with or without mortar, leaving spaces between each block to permit aeration. Form three sides of a 3-to 4-foot square, roughly 3 to 4 feet high.
|Wood Pallet Bin. Discarded wooden pallets from factories or stores can be stood upright to form a bin. Attach the corners with rope, wire, or chain. A fourth pallet can be used as a floor to increase air flow. A used carpet or tarp can be placed over the top of the pile to reduce moisture loss or keep out rain or snow.
|Two- or Three-Bay Wood Bin. Having several bins allows you to use one section for storing materials, one for active composting, and one for curing or storing finished compost. Each bin should be approximately 3 x 3 x 3 feet. Be sure to allow air spaces between the sidewall slats, and make the front walls removable (lift out slats) for easy access. Lift-up lids are nice.
12 EASY Steps to Building a Bathtub Worm Farm! From fellow WordPress-er; http://permaverde.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/composting-with-worms/ Posted by PermaVerde in Permaculture 16th Sept 2011
With a little bit of added effort you can turn your daily food scraps into nutrients for your garden. One great way to do this is by composting with worms, also known as vermi-composting. Most people assume worms are dirty and smell gross, which is far from the truth. Maintaining a healthy worm bin is not challenging, does not smell bad, and will not invite large bugs such as cockroaches.
Healthy and happy worms eat at least half of their body weight every single day. That means if you are farming two pounds of worms, they can easily consume one pound of dinner scraps a day! After just 3-4 months you will have a whole container full of vermiculite (worm manure) and your worm population will double. Vermi-composting is really simple and everyone can do it; even if you live on the 7th floor without a balcony.
Preparation: 24 hours for sealants to dry properly
Building: 2 hours
Skill Level: Moderately Easy
Tools you will need:
I am a hand tool sort of guy. There is nothing like putting your own energy into any job that you need to get done. If you would prefer to use a skill saw, go right ahead!
PVC Cable Saw
The cable saw uses friction to cut through the the PVC like butter. I prefer the cable saw, but you can use the PVC pipe cutter instead.
Flat bar (optional)
A flat bar can make the job really easy when trying to remove nails from salvaged wood.
Materials you will need:
Salvaged Bath Tub $25.00 USD
I called a couple bath companies and found a “bath tub skirt” (a mold to go over an old bath tub) that a customer decided they didn’t want after it was custom made for their particular tub. Instead of this bath tub being thrown out, I was able to utilize it for a cozy worm home.
Recycled 2×4’s for building frame FREE: Legs Four 32″ Length: Two 64in Width Two-33in.Cross Bars: 2- 33in.
While I was driving I found these on the side of the road waiting to be picked up by county municipalities. Instead of allowing a great resource go to the dump and spending money I decided (after a little nail removal with a flat bar) these would work perfect. NOTE: These measurements were for my bath tub, make sure to measure to fit your bath tub.
2in shower drain $2.00 USD.
A shower drain is only needed if your bath tub doesn’t already have a shower drain installed. Since I used a bath tub skirt I had to drill a 2inch hole into the bath tub in order to fit this drain.
Underwater sealant $8.63 USD
Used for sealing the shower drain to the bath tub. Allow 24 hours for a proper seal.
Note: This exact product may not be necessary. This sealant is used specifically for sealing anything that will stay underwater, which my shower drain will be since i am using a valve. This product is not made up of friendly ingredients and can only be used up to 48 hours after you open it. I would recommend doing some research to find a better, less toxic, sealant. I had my worms before my bin was built, so I had to settle for what ever my local store had.
Drain pipe materials $5.63 USD : 1in. Ball valve $5.15USD, 2in. to 1in. pvc reducer $.48 USD, 1in pvc pipe FREE
These drain pipe materials will help you to collect the leachate (great plant food that is rich in microorganisms, and can be added to enhance a compost tea) and to make sure your worms do not drown inside the bin.
PVC primer and cement.
In order to connect the drain pipe materials together, you need to create a weld by simply applying the PVC primer and cement. I am not including the $8.00 USD cost because these were left over from a different job. Make sure to allow 2 hours for a properly sealed weld.
The worms will need a nice place to rest and lay their eggs. Moist corrugated cardboard works perfect for this, as they love wiggling their way through the “veins” of the cardboard.
Worms love peat moss, which is why I used this old bag of peat moss and added compost for my worm’s bedding material. You can also use cut wheatgrass trays as that is mostly made up of peat moss.
The compost was mixed with peat moss for a high nutritious worm bedding.
The drainage rock will allow an even drain throughout the worm bin. I was able to gather some rocks from an old drain field that is not in use anymore. You could use planks of wood (see suggestion below) if you don’t have access to the drain rocks.
3inch Nails $3.25
I recommend to use 3inch nails if you choose to not use any wood smaller than a 2×4. (ie: If you are using 1×4′s, 1×6′s or any other 1 “by” you are going to want to use a 2 1/4 – 2 1/2 inch nail)
Tarp for a cover
A tarp can work well protecting worms from the sunlight and heavy rains storms.
Shower drain installed in bath tub
1.Installing the shower drain:
- Clean all the surfaces that the sealant will be applied to as instructed by the product. (I disregarded it and just used water. Oops! )
- Apply the sealant as recommended.
- Insert shower drain into bath tub hole.
- Clean up excess sealant.
- Allow to dry/cure according to product directions. (My underwater sealant took 24 hours to cure)
Priming and gluing drain materials
Step 2: Connect drain parts together
- Cut your PVC pipe into one 6inch and one 3inch piece.
- Prime all ends that you are connecting with the PVC primer.
- Glue your 6inch PVC pipe to the pipe reducer (if you needed to use a reducer).
- Glue the other end of your 6inch PVC pipe into the ball valve.
- Glue the 3inch piece into the other end of the ball valve.
- Make sure to wait two hours for a proper weld before applying liquid.
Drain materials installed on bath tub
Step 3: Connect drain materials to bath tub
- You will connect your drain materials to the shower drain that is already connected to your bath tub.
- Prime the shower drain and the other end of the reducer (if reducer is not used, prime the 6inch pipe).
- Glue shower drain to the reducer (if reducer not used; glue shower drain to the 6inch pipe).
- Do not apply running water for two hours.
Building the frame
Step 4: Build the frame
- Measure the bathtub’s long and short sections (my long section was 64inch and short section was 33 inch).
- Cut four 2×4′s the same size as the short section (two for the short section, two for cross bars).
- Subtract 3 inches from the long section, and cut two 2×4′s the new size. (61 inches for me. Once we nail the short section onto the long section, the length will be the original size. A 2×4′s actual size is 1.5″ x 3.5″).
- Cut four legs to 32 inches.
- Nail or screw the short section and long section together.
- Nail or screw the legs to the inside of the frame. Make sure to nail or screw legs to the short section and long section for proper strength.
- Nail or screw the cross bars for support 10 inches from the bottom of the legs.
Step 5: Flip frame over and bring it to its final resting ground.
- Fully constructed and ready to be filled.
Step 6: Insert bath tub into frame.
2 inch layer of drain rocks placed in the bottom of the bath tub
Step 7: Add a 2 inch layer of drain rocks to the bottom of your bath tub. (You can also choose to use multiple planks of wood that run the width/short section)
Cardboard bedding layer
Step 8: Rip up moist cardboard and use as the bottom bedding layer where the worms will sleep and lay their eggs.
Peat moss and compost bedding
Step 9: Bedding
- Make a mixture of peat moss and compost approximately 6-8inches deep. (You can use soil from wheat grass trays too).
- Water down this mixture so that it is like a moist cake. Too much water and the worms will not have enough oxygen and too little water the worms will dry up.
Step 10: Welcome the worms into their new home.
- A good housing ratio is: per 1lb of pure worms, you should have 1ft squared of space.
- Worms will double every three to four months, so make sure to plan for this. Some ideas are to set up another bin, add them to your garden, give them away or sell them to friends, neighbors, and clients!
Step 11: Feed your worms!
- Worms love horse manure, fruits, and vegetables. You can also feed them dinner scraps such as pastas, cooked roots, or breads. Make sure you do not use animal products as they will rot and attack predators.
- Do not feed your worms hot peppers, onions, oranges, meats. One rule of thumb is if it can hurt your eyes, then it can definitely hurt the worms.
- Important tip: Keep the food only in the center of the bed and leave the sides food free. Worms are really sensitive to heat, if your worm food starts composting and heating up to high temperatures the worms could be killed. By leaving an area empty of food, such as the sides, the worms can escape and they will be happy and safe.
- Cover the food with burlap sacks, newspaper, or even cardboard so there aren’t a ton of flies and other insects being attracted to it.
Finished worm farm! (with a temporary cover)
Step 12: Goodnight worms!
- Worms do not like light, so make sure you provide a cover for them so they can safely come up to the surface.
- Adding a pitch to the cover will promote air flow and water runoff during a rain storm so the worms will not end up drowning.