Composting Methods And How To Make Your Own Organic Soil

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Composting – How to Get Started

Any organic material will eventually break down.  Composting speeds the procedure by offering a perfect place for insects and other decaying bacteria to do their work. The final product, humus or compost, feels and looks like fertile garden soil. That is because it is.  This dark crumbly stuff works wonders in the garden.  It works in all kinds of soil and provides crucial nutrients to assist plants to grow and look better.

These organisms that cause this break down will be bacteria, fungus, and larger organisms such as earthworms, pill bugs, nematodes, and many more. Decomposing organisms need 4 crucial elements to grow: nitrogen, wetness, carbon, and oxygen. For the best outcome, mix materials high in nitrogen (such as fresh lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and livestock manure) and those high in carbon (such as dried twigs and leaves).

If you don’t have the high nitrogen material, a handful of regular lawn fertilizer will work. Water is provided by rainfall or hose, and you may need to cover it with plastic or a tarp to keep it from drying out. You don’t want the pile too wet, just evenly damp. Turning or blending the pile adds oxygen and frequent turning yields quicker decomposition.

What To Compost

composting ingredientsThere is an endless list of materials that can be added to a compost bin. They consist of leaves, lawn clippings, straw, woody plants, brush, fruit scraps, coffee grounds, animals manure(not pet), sawdust, and shredded paper. Do not add diseased plants or meat scraps that might draw in  animals. Do not add dog or cat manures.  They can bring disease. Also, if your dog has been given a de-wormer, it will kill the earthworms.

Composting can be as easy or as involved as you would like, and depends on how much lawn and kitchen waste you have, how quickly you want compost and how much time you want to spend on it.

Cold Composting

With cold composting, you can just pile yard clippings and dry leaves on the ground or in a bin. This technique requires no maintenance, however it will take a number of months to a year or more for the pile to disintegrate. If you do not have time to tend the compost pile, cold composting works well.  Cold composting is for those that can’t tend the pile at least every other day, have little yard waste, or are not in a hurry to use the compost.  It has been shown that cold composting is actually better at reducing soil-borne illness than hot composting. Cold composting is the way most people compost or at least start to compost.

When cold composting you will want to keep as many seeds out of the pile as possible.  Also, don’t put any diseased plants in the pile.  Cold composting won’t build up the temperatures to kill seeds or the disease causing organisms. You can add waste to the pile as you accumulate it, but if you want to speed up the process, you can always shred the material first.  Just run over it with a lawn mower to shred it and then add it to the pile.

Hot Composting

Hot composting will produce a pile that actually gets hot, hence the name.  A pile can reach upwards of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  That is enough heat to kill weed seeds and disease causing organisms that cold compost can’t.  It also kills some of the beneficial organisms that prevent soil born disease.  That is why cold composting is better at preventing those.

Hot composting will take a lot more effort on your part however.  Instead of just piling up your material you will have to mix it and keep it mixed on a regular basis.  You will want to turn your pile at least weekly.  The more you turn the quicker it will compost.  Depending on the amount of material you have it can continue to work all year long.  For best results with hot composting, you should have an equal amount of carbon and nitrogen materials in your pile.

To get a hot compost pile you will need a pile about 3 foot square of material.  Even bigger is better because it will shrink as it composts.  If you won’t have this much at one time, just stockpile it or start cold composting until you get enough, then you can start turning.

Building A Compost Bin

 

Pick a spot

It should be a level,well-drained area and somewhat near your garden.  Probably should have a water source close also.

Construct a Bin

You have endless choices and there is no one way.  It could be as simple as using some wire fencing and making a circle bin or using old pallets standing on edge to form the sides of a bin.  I like a bin that only has three sides and is about 5 feet wide and 5 feet deep.  This allows me to pile it up and still be able to turn it easily.  Some people like to put a pallet on the ground to aid in aeration.  I don’t like using them because they make it harder to turn the pile.

There are several commercial bins available also.  Some that make turning easier or even automatically.  I have tried a few of these and even made a couple of my own from 55 gallon barrels.  They do work, but I find it is much easier just to pile it up.

Fill

Now it time to start filling it.  Use equal amounts of high-carbon (brown) and high-nitrogen (green) materials.  You can either add them separately, making layers 3 or 4 inches thick, or mixing them together.  I find that mixing will start the pile cooking quicker.

Although not necessary, you may want to add a couple shovels of soil or compost to the pile to get it started quicker.  Yeast can also be added to help kick things off.  You can use the packaged stuff or pour on a beer or two.  Hint:  Drink it first and add it when the need arises.  This also adds nitrogen.

If you have more brown high-carbon material you can use lawn fertilizer if you want.  I don’t like doing this because I like to keep everything organic.  If you do, then use about a half cup for every ten inches of brown material you have.

Water

The pile should be damp but not soaked.  Anaerobic bacteria will take over when the pile is too wet.  These are bacteria that work without oxygen.  They will continue to break down the material, but much slower and will produce a nasty smell.

Aerate

Punch holes in the sides of the pile for aeration.  Some people even add plastic pipes with hole drilled every so often to help keep the pile aerated.

Turn

The pile will initially heat up and the start to cool.  You will want to first turn the pile when it reaches 130 to 140 degrees F.  Either get you a compost thermometer or just stick your hand in.  If it is so hot you can’t leave it very long, it’s hot enough. When you turn, you want to move what is on the outside of the pile to the inside of the pile.  The more you turn the faster it will make compost.  If you are turning every day you can have compost in a month or so.  If you turn weekly it will take 3 or 4 months.

Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting is the use of worms to make compost.  It can be done year round in a very small space and can be done in the garage, basement or area.  It is a great method of getting rid of kitchen scraps.  The compost made this way is great for fertilizing house plants.

1.  You will need a worm bin.  A covered worm bin.  Worms like to eat in the dark so you can’t use clear plastic and it needs to have a tight cover(worms like to escape).  Most people use plastic but I have seen a couple make of wood.  A bin about the size of a laundry basket would be good for a family of 6.   There are commercially available worm bins.  I have one that has lasted over 10 years and well worth the cost.

2.  Drill several small hole in the top 1/8″ or less in size for ventilation.  Drill several holes, around 1/4″ in size, in the bottom of the bin.  These will be for drainage.  Cover these holes with a mesh of some kind to keep the worms from escaping.  You can use screen material or cheesecloth or anything that will let water out but keep worms in. Put a tray underneath to capture the drainage.

3.  Now you will need to add bedding material for the worms.  You have several choices.  You can make your own or buy some already made just for your worms.  Just remember that a majority of your worms diet will be the bedding so it can not be inorganic. That also means it will have to be constantly added and changed out periodically.  It should:

  • Be of neutral PH
  • Be free of any sharp or abrasive things that can harm the worms’ sensitive skin
  • Retain moisture
  • Allow oxygen flow

Bedding Choices

  1. Shredded brown cardboard
  2. Shredded paper (not bleached white office paper)
  3. Shredded newspaper (not colored)
  4. Aged compost
  5. Aged horse or cow manure
  6. Coco coir
  7. Peat moss
  8. Straw and hay
  9. Fall leaves and other yard waste
  10. Wood chips

Remember to keep the bedding moist, not wet.  I like to add bedding to half of the bin and leave the other half empty.  This helps in collecting the compost and changing the bedding.  I will explain in a later step.

red worm4.  Add worms to your bin. Redworms are recommended for best composting, but other species can be used. Redworms are the most common for starting out.  You can gather them from around the yard or order online.  They are the small red worms that you see under stones or a stack of hay.  Just place them on top of the bedding and they will disappear into the bedding after a while.

5.  Add food to the bin.  Worms don’t eat much and they don’t eat fast.  They also have very small mouths and no teeth.  Food particles have to be small for them to be able to digest them.  The smaller the better.  Some people even blend the scraps before feeding.  Coffee grounds are great.  Almost anything organic can be added to your worm bin, just don’t add meat or fat or pet waste, all of which will attract pests, some of which will kill the worms.  Just don’t overfeed.  The food won’t get eaten by the worms and will start to rot and stink.  Keep the bin in a dark area far from extreme temperature levels.

6.  After 2 or 3 months, depending on how many worms you have and how much you have fed them, you will need to change out the bedding.  This is why I only fill half of the bin.  You just put new bedding and some food in the empty side and let the worms move into that side to get the food.  After a couple days you will be able to harvest the compost from the first side without removing the worms.

An alternative method is to open the bin under a strong light (sun light) and let it sit for a couple hours.  The worms will burrow down and you can harvest the compost on the top.

How To Use Compost

food-960070_640Compost can be used on all your plants, indoors and outdoors.  It is an excellent fertilizer.  Compost provides all the nutrients and raw material that your plants need to grow happy and healthy.  It is excellent for potted plants as well as those grown in the ground or a raised bed.

Compost can be used an a mulch.  In fact, using compost as a mulch can prevent a number of plant diseases, especially those that cause damping of young plants.  As a mulch it not only provide the nutrients needed, it keeps the soil a constant temperature and reduces water requirements.

Compost is one of the most important things you can put on your plants so start up that compost pile now.