Composting: A Look At Composting For Beginners

Embracing Our Interdependence With Nature

Composting: A Look At Composting For Beginners


Curing Compost

Curing Compost

This is a complicated time in our society. We use complex tools to accomplish every day chores. It is easy to forget that much that is happening in our world that gets done quickly, efficiently and with little effort from us or our technologies, uses no fossil fuels, and generates no pollution, and is being done by a universe of tiny creatures, some, so small we can’t even see them. 

Let me tell you about the fascinating universe of creatures that make up the work force of your everyday compost pile and the earth’s finest soils. You can make compost happen in your yard without knowing any of this, but if you want to be the master organism in charge of the compost and you have never made a compost before it will help you immensely to know how your kitchen garbage and yard wastes become the finest soil a plant could want.  

Long before people began making compost piles composting was happening. Compost is the result of the decomposition of organic materials. Everything that came from the earth goes back to the earth. That is the natural rule that has kept the earth clean for as long as it has hosted life. Without the agents of decomposition the earth would be overrun with plant and animal wastes. Imagine if every leaf that fell to the ground never changed, if every bit of manure that hit the ground, and every creature that perished simply stayed where it fell. Throughout the ages, whether it be rock, tree, or crude oil, everything decomposes. Here is how it happens.

Some of the smallest organisms that are responsible for the decomposition of organic material are bacteria. They make up 80 to 90 percent of the billions of micro organisms found in a gram of compost. What are they doing there? They are eating. They are eating, excreting (good stuff), reproducing and dying at a furious rate, and they are also being eaten. Slightly more visible diners in the compost are fungi, mold and yeasts. There is an organism that you can’t see, but you can recognize it by its very special signature odor. Actinomycetes (Ak-tin-o-my-seats) give composts and soils their very desirable earthy fragrance. Other diners in the compost cafeteria are archaea, protozoa, rotifers, mites, snails and slugs, earthworms, centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs and pill bugs, white worms, soil flat worms, nematodes, springtails, beetles, and ants. They are all eating, and another cafeteria springs up every time organic matter begins to pile up on the ground. We can take advantage of this.

Everything of the earth will compost, eventually even rocks break down to make soil. That being said there are things that we don’t put into our compost piles. Don’t bother with rocks or sand… we have plenty of sand in our soil already. Big things like logs and palm fronds take too long to decompose, so we don’t put them in this compost pile either. They go into another type of compost. We don’t compost meat, bones or fat so as not to attract raccoons and other meat eating creatures to our compost pile, but ranchers frequently do. When adding manures it is generally accepted that we only add the manures from herbivorous livestock, so no human, cat or dog fecal matter. Plastics won’t decompose, so we don’t add plastics, but if they get in there by accident no worries, you will find them eventually, and then you can put them elsewhere. How about fertilizer? You are bound to meet a person who puts fertilizers in the compost pile. Please smile politely when they tell you, and absolutely do not add fertilizer to your compost under any circumstance. It is a counter productive detrimental practice. 

So, we know decomposition happens because organisms eat organic matter. We know which organic materials we don’t want to put into a compost. What organic matter do we use to make our compost? Everyone knows kitchen vegetable garbage, and anyone who has put a pile of kitchen garbage out on the ground or in a box or barrel knows that kitchen garbage smells bad, and draws flies. So, to kitchen garbage we add old plant debris like dead leaves. When put together with dead leaves kitchen garbage odors get tied up and the pile soon develops a pleasant earthy scent. The kitchen wastes are called nitrogen or green wastes. The dead leaves are called carbon or brown wastes. For every bucket of nitrogen or green wastes you want to add 4 to 5 buckets of carbon or brown wastes. 

In addition to kitchen vegetables green wastes are manures, grass clippings, green hay, fresh seaweed, and green leaf clippings. In addition to dead leaves brown wastes are straw, tea bags, coffee grounds and coffee filters, fine cut wood mulches, sticks and twigs, sawdust, shredded newspaper, torn cardboard, dryer lint, pet fur and human hair (un-dyed). At first you may need to mix or turn the nitrogen and carbon wastes in your compost pile, but once decomposition starts, and even if you are adding more wastes, as long as you add layers of greens and browns (nitrogens and carbons), the cafeteria workers will mix and aerate your compost for you. If you place your compost in a shady location you will not have to water it very often, and if it is beneath a shade tree you will get the benefit of fallen leaves for your compost as well. 

In order to work properly a compost pile needs a certain mass or density. The space for composting wastes should be at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. Mine are all four by fours, and I try to build them four feet high before moving on to the next one. As it breaks down the volume of the compost will diminish by more than half. I have never met anyone who made too much compost. Every season we all wish we had made more.

The organisms we desire in our compost will come to the organic material we put down. If there is enough mass, air and moisture they will begin eating, and in a few months your pile of garbage, leaves, and grass clippings will be looking a whole lot more like the earth’s finest soil. Well cured (aged) compost has a dense community of organisms that help plants to grow with great health and vigor, and without the need for any fertilizers, but that is for another post.  

Bon appetit compost organisms.


8 Responses

  1. Lisa Bell says:

    After having been a lousy composter for years, I have followed your guidelines and finally have had a great compost this year. I must admit that I used a square plastic cube shaped bin (store bought). One of my mistakes was adding too much green and not enough brown. To up my brown portion, I have started using more shredded paper—I shred a lot of the paper that comes into our home through the mail in addition to a Sunday newspaper (at least the portion I don’t use for the guinea pig cages–after the pigs are done with it, it can go in the compost too).

    Thanks for another great posting!

  2. Adina says:

    Thanks for your comment Lisa, I am so glad you have figured out what your compost needed. It is great that you are using a waste that your household produces to add carbon to your compost.

  3. Sara says:

    Fascinating–thanks for the clear and interesting instructions!

  4. Adina says:

    Thanks for your comment Sara.

  5. Angela says:

    Adina, I have a Seminole Pumpkin that vined in to and rooted in my compost pile. Should I pull it out (it has lttle baby pumkins on it) or let it stay? Will it harm the process or nutient levels in the compost pile?

  6. Adina says:

    Angela, that is a very good question, and one only you can answer. Questions you might ask yourself are how hungry are you, and how badly do you need that compost right now? If that compost is needed for starting gardens now, and not having it will set you back, you might want to take that pumpkin out, but if you can spare the time the pumpkins will take to develop, and you can take them off small (5lbs or so), you would have some really good food and some seeds for the following pumpkin season.
    Good luck, and thanks for commenting.

  7. Renee Debatt says:

    Beautiful article! Remember my Seminole Pumpkin that grew beautifully out of and around my compost pile? I got 3 delicious pumpkins. It framed my pile and move up the back wall, so I was able to get to my pile. Renee

  8. Adina says:

    Thanks for your comment Renee. I’ll bet those compost pumpkins were awesome!

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