7 Easy Steps: Breaking Down Those Rotten Barriers to Composting

composting_guide.jpgStarting your own backyard compost can be really easy. Follow these simple steps and you’ll have your own “black gold” in no time.

Keep in mind that compost is essentially “microbe farming.” Just as a gardener prepares a seed bed for right conditions to grow a plant, so too must a composter prepare their compost pile to facilitate microbe action. 

Materials:

Step 1. Get Your Greens and Browns
The fastest way to make compost is to get the perfect combination of “greens” (nitrogen dominant articles) to “browns” (carbon dominant articles).  The ideal ratio is about 30:1 of Carbon:Nitrogen. See the table below for a list of common greens and browns and their C:N ratios. 

 Greens

 C:N

 Browns

 C:N

 Vegetable Scraps

 15-20:1

 Autumn leaves

 30-80:1

 Coffee Grounds

 20:1

 Straw

 40-100:1

 Grass Clippings

 15-25:1

 Wood Chips or Sawdust

 100-500:1

 Manure

 5-25:1

 Bark

 100-130:1

 Hay

 25:1

 Mixed Paper

 150-200:1

 Garden Waste

 30:1

 Newspaper or Corrugated Cardboard

 560:1

Source: COMPOSTING TO REDUCE THE WASTE STREAM: A guide to Small Scale Food and Yard Waste Composting Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service: Written by: Nancy Dickson, Tellus Institute, Boston, MA Thomas Richard, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY Robert Kozlowski, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 

Step 2. Build Your Pile
Getting that C:N ratio is important, but luckily there tends to be less Nitrogen in our “greens” than there is Carbon in our “browns.” This means that if we layer the same amount of “greens” and “browns” (about 6 inches) in the compost bin, then we’ll get close to the right ratio! Keep in mind, thought that there is an exact science to getting this ratio correct. If you are interested in doing more than just taking an educated guess, check out NC State's Compost Production and Use in Sustainable Farming Systems guide for a good method. 

In this step you’ll want to pay attention to two other crucial elements of composting: air and water. Your microbes need to breathe and they need to drink, but just like our human bodies too much or too little of these resources will put them out of commission. If your compost is too wet, then it will get smelly. If it is too dry, then not much will happen. As you are layering, do a little guess work. If your greens are super wet (watermelon rinds, wet coffee filters, thawed out frozen fruit) then consider adding more browns. If your greens are really dry, then consider adding some water.  The whole pile should have the moisture of a wet sponge.

You might also consider adding an inoculator such as bokashi, Effective Microbes, or just a couple of handfuls of healthy soil.

Step 3. Cover Your Pile and Let those Microbes Do Their Thing
Everyone likes a little privacy. A cover to your compost (consider a simple tarp_ prevents moisture from getting in and out, protects you compost from critters, and can provide a little bit of insulation. Once it is covered, its time to let it all simmer. Done well, a compost pile can reach upwards of 180 degrees from the microbial activity.  To get the most heat generated, many people recommend a pile that is 3 cubic feet.  Most home composters won’t have that kind of material stocked up, so temperatures might not go so high.

Though it is not necessary, you can track the temperature with a compost thermometer. Once you see the temperature reach a peak and start to fall back down, it is time to move to the next step. Ideally, the pile would be at around 150 degrees for several days. For those of us who don’t want to get that technical, a waiting about a week usually does it.

Step 4. Turn
As the microbes work and things begin to break down oxygen, gets used up and your pile will get compressed. Turning your pile by using a pitchfork (think of it like fluffing rice) or a compost auger introduces more oxygen into the system.

Step 5. Rest, Turn, Rest Turn
It is typically good to turn your pile about once a week. Each time you turn it, you can check to see if it is too wet, too dry or just right.

Step 6. Harvest
Done on a large scale with constant attention, compost can happen in about 3 weeks! For backyard composters, depending on the materials composted, the temperature, humidity and maintenance, it is usually ready in 3-6 months.

Use this nutrient rich material for fertilizing your garden, growing your own seedlings, landscaping or simply keep it in your backyard to gaze upon with fondness. Whatever you do, you can feel good about diverting waste from the landfill and building better soil. 

Step 7. Modify the above steps
Most of us don’t have 3 cubic feet of greens and browns just lying around.  We simply produce kitchen waste every week and want to keep it out of our trash cans. Instead of building a pile all at once, you can just dump your scraps into your pile and simultaneously add the correct amount of browns. Though you might not get to super high temperatures, you will make compost all the same.

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