Thinking of starting a compost?
Successful compost piles are usually tucked into an obscure but convenient corner that gets a number hours of sunlight each day. The heat of the sun speeds up the process. If the bin is not in a convenient location, it is less likely to be used.
Small compost bins are neat and attractive but not always sustainable. To have an active compost, plan for an area that is approximately a metre square. Design of the bin is up to the individual as long as it meets the basic requirements.
To be successful, a compost needs six things: organic material, green and brown, moisture, air, soil microbes and time.
Green organic matter is fresh and wet. Suggested items include: grass clippings, tea bags, vegetable and fruit scraps, flowers, weeds and plant parts without seeds. Avoid putting seeds in a compost as there is a good chance they will be still viable after the materials have been broken down.
Brown materials are usually dry. The most common items are: dried leaves, wood shavings, dry grass, coffee filters and shredded paper.
Moisture is needed for a compost to be active. Dry composts are slow to break down while ones that are too wet turn to slime. The aim is to have the moisture content similar to a wrung-out sponge.
Soil microbes are what breaks down the solid particles into soil. Microbes are present in healthy soils and composts that can be added to the compost pile start the compost cooking. Alternative to microbes are commercial compost starters or fertilizer high in nitrogen.
Air aids in the decomposition process. When a compost pile lacks air, it starts to smell. Turning the compost often increases the amount of air in the mixture and speeds up the decomposition process.
To start a compost pile, place branches on the ground. The branches create an uneven surface that helps aerate the pile and let excess moisture drain.
Next should be a thin layer of soil or compost that adds microbes.
A layer of brown material comes next, followed by an equal layer of green. Continue layering until all the readily available material is used or the pile is complete. If necessary, moisten the pile and let it sit.
The pile should heat from the centre outwards. Once the pile begins to heat, it should be turned on a regular basis. Turning increases the oxygen, which is needed to break down the materials. Check the moisture level each time it is turned, adding water when needed.
Most people find it easier to have two compost pile. One is completed with the exception of being turned and the other is being added to on a regular basis.
To speed up the compost process, shred materials as the smaller the pieces, the easier it is for the microbes to digest.
Add items that pack (grass clippings, saw dust or shredded paper) in thin layers to insure that air can circulate between them.
It is important to know what not to put in the compost as it effects the final product.
Do not add dairy, meat, bones or fish scraps. The fat in these foods break down slowly and will attract rodents.
Some people have been successful in adding plain grains such as bread, pasta and rice, but this too can attract rodents.
Ashes break down slowly and change the pH of the compost. It is best not to put them in the compost.
Do not use materials that have been sprayed with chemicals in the compost. Chemicals that are residual will become part of the compost once the plant material has broken down. If the chemical was used to control broad leaf weeds, it will continue to do so in the compost.
Seeds and diseased plants should go into the garbage as opposed to the compost as the compost might not get hot enough to kill the seeds or pathogens.
Never add raw feces or urine from pets or humans as the chance of spreading diseases is high.
Large items like branches or corn stocks take a number of years to break down. They can be added only if shredded.
Composting is not an exact science. If the compost doesn’t start to heat immediately, check the moisture level, and add more soil or microbes as necessary. Each pile is slightly different and they occasionally need some tweaking.
Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist who lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.