Compost is what you get when organic materials have completely broken down into a rich, dark, crumbly material – “black gold”. Finished compost is often called humus. Nature creates compost all the time without human intervention. Gardeners can speed up the composting process by creating the optimal conditions for decomposition: Air + Water + Carbon + Nitrogen = Compost The trick to accelerating decomposition is particle size. The ideal carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio for a compost pile is 30:1. Grass clippings have a C:N of about 16:1. Sawdust is about 400:1. Check for the C:N ratios of common compost ingredients; then get out a calculator when building your pile.

Benefits of composting: Compost holds twice its weight in moisture that it slowly disperses to plants’ roots. Compost captures pollutants in the soil that could wash into your drinking water. The microbes in compost attack disease organisms in the soil before they get to your plants. Composting means successful gardening and a solution to waste-disposal problems. Improves the soil structure Increases the activity of soil microbes Enhances the nutrients of the soil Improve the chemistry of soil. Insulates changes in soil temperature Reduces the amount of solid waste you generate. Saves space in municipal landfills. Saves you tax money. Creates a useful natural fertilizer, more environmentally friendly than synthetic fertilizers.

The success of your garden depends on the soil, and the health of your soil depends on the compost you give it. Making compost isn’t difficult. The composition of the compost pile must be balanced for efficient decomposition. There must be plenty of air, adequate water (moist, but not wet), and the proper mix of carbon to nitrogen (about 30:1). Small particle size decomposes faster – Shred and chop – “the smaller, the better”. Pile should stay moist, but not wet. You may need to water occasionally.

If a very wet climate, you may need to cover the pile to keep it from becoming soggy. You can open up air holes by getting in there with a pitchfork or shift the entire pile over a few feet, bit by bit, taking care to move the outside to the inside of the new pile. Nothing is worse than cold, slimy compost! Three factors are usually to blame: poor aeration, too much moisture, or not enough nitrogen-rich material in the pile. The Process: Aerobic microorganisms make compost cook and cannot live in an oxygen-poor environment. Anaerobic bacteria don’t require air to thrive. These microbes eventually make compost, but work much more slowly. An anaerobic compost pile makes a home for sow bugs, pill bugs, and earwigs—all undesirables. Such a pile won’t get hot enough to kill any weed seeds it contains, either. Add manure or blood meal to get the pile going. Don’t let it dry out.

Microorganisms use up a lot of water. An adequate amount of soil provides enough microorganisms to start the process Microorganisms from the soil eat the organic (carbon containing) wastes producing a fiber-rich, carbon-containing humus with inorganic nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. They break the material down through aerobic respiration. Through the respiration process, the microorganisms give off carbon dioxide and heat — temperatures within compost piles can rise as high as 100 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (38 to 66 C). If the compost pile or bin is actively managed by turning and watering regularly, the process of decomposing into finished compost can happen in as little as two to three weeks (otherwise, it may take months).

Compost Pile Foodweb: Bacteria and fungi break down the organic matter . Single-celled organisms (protozoa), small worms (nematodes), and mites feed on the bacteria and fungi. Larger predatory nematodes, predatory mites and other invertebrates (sow bugs, millipedes, beetles) feed on the protozoa, mites and nematodes. Water. Compost microbes need the right amount of water. Too much reduces airflow, causes temperatures to fall, make the pile smell; too little slows decomposition and prevents the pile from heating. Compost should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Carbon ingredients. The microbes that break down organic matter use carbon as an energy source. Ingredients with a high percentage of carbon are usually dry and brown or yellow. The most common are leaves, straw, and corn stalks. Nitrogen ingredients.

Microbes need nitrogen for the proteins that build their bodies. Ingredients high in nitrogen are generally green, moist plant matter, such as leaves, or manure. They are called greens, but in reality they can be green, brown, and all colors in between. C/N ratio. In order for a compost pile to decompose efficiently, you need the right ratio of carbon (C) to nitrogen (N) (C/N). Piles with too much nitrogen tend to smell. The excess nitrogen converts into an ammonia gas. Carbon-rich piles break down slowly. There’s not enough nitrogen for the microbe population to expand. An ideal compost pile should have a 30:1 C/N ratio. Grass clippings alone have about a 20:1 C/N ratio. Add one part grass clippings to two parts dead leaves.

Create an active compost pile. Provide a steady supply of water and air to the pile to encourage microorganisms that drive the composting process. Make sure your location is level and in partial shade. 4’x4′ palettes make a perfect square and are excellent compost bin walls. If you want to add soil amendments (bonemeal), add them when compost is finished Additives decompose and lose their valuable nutrients.

Making Compost Without a Bin You need:

1. A site that’s 3 feet long by 3 feet wide.

2. Carbon-rich materials (leaves, straw, dead flowers, shredded newspaper)

3. Nitrogen-rich materials (grass clippings, raw plant-based kitchen waste (peelings and rinds) and animal manure. Don’t use manure from carnivores

4. A shovel or two of garden soil. Spread a layer several inches thick of straw, cornstalks, or leaves where you want to build the pile. Top it with several inches of green stuff. Add a thin layer of soil. Add a layer of brown stuff. Moisten the three layers. Continue layering green and brown with a little soil until the pile is 3 feet high. Use a ratio of three parts brown to one part green. Keep adding until it gets at least 3 feet high. Occasionally turn the pile to aerate and keep the pile moist. Shovel out the finished compost and start the next pile with the material that hadn’t decomposed.

First layer Straw (not hay). Using straw as your first layer keeps your pile off the ground and keeps out weeds and pests. You can get straw at your local garden center.

Second layer Garden plants, kitchen scraps, equine stable bedding, and manure. Periodically sprinkle in compost with good bacteria as it helps speed up the process.

Third layer Shredded leaves. Shredding is good but not entirely necessary. Keep layering in straw for airflow. Repeat and finish with manure, compost, and lock in with straw. You can use cornstalks for extra aeration. The more manure, grass, and leaves the faster the process. For a fast cooking compost pile you need: 1/3 horse manure 2/3 leaves or grass If you don’t have access to a barnyard, substitute a high N product, such as blood meal.

Ingredients for compost: Fruit and vegetable wastes – peels, skins, seeds, leaves Eggshells, shellfish shells, fish heads Coffee grounds (including paper filters), tea bags, paper napkins Corncobs (shred to make them break down quickly) Yard waste Grass clippings Leaves Pine needles Weeds (no invasive weeds) Woody materials (branches, twigs) Straw, sawdust, hay Newspaper Seaweed, kelp or marsh grass washed in fresh water to remove salt

SHOULD NOT BE COMPOSTED: Human waste or pet litter Diseased garden plants Invasive weeds Charcoal ashes are toxic to soil microorganisms. Pesticide-treated plant material harmful to the compost food web organisms, and pesticides may survive into the finished compost.

You are one of the Chosen Ones, called to give away your riches. Give a bag with a scoop of your finest compost to unenlightened gardeners you meet.

Compost tea is an effective, low-strength, natural fertilizer for seedlings and garden plants, and it can suppress fungal plant diseases. The tea-brewing process extracts, and in some cases grows and multiplies, nutrients and beneficial bacteria and fungi from compost and suspends them in water in a form that makes them quickly available to plants.

Making compost tea:

1. Place compost and water (10 pounds mature compost for 10 gallons of water) in a 40-gallon barrel. Protect the barrel from cold and heat.

2. Stir with a stick daily for a minimum of 5 days.

3. Strain the liquid from the compost after 5 days, using cheesecloth or burlap. There should be no bubbling or off odors. Use the compost tea immediately, without further dilution. When you brew compost tea use mature, sweet, earthy-smelling compost. Keep in mind that E. coli can be present in the raw ingredients of a compost pile. Maintain a hot pile or allow the compost to mature fully. Don’t apply compost tea to any vegetable within 3 weeks of its planned harvest date.