-- How Do You Make Great Compost? --
Composting is a great way to recycle your kitchen and yard waste, resulting in an organic fertilizer for your garden, plants, and even grass. There is really no wrong way to compost, but there are a few rules to follow and some advice in order to make the best compost possible.
You really can't go wrong by adding your kitchen and yard waste to your compost pile. All organic material will eventually decompose. However, the best compost is made by mixing small amounts of nitrogen-rich materials, such as kitchen scraps, spent plants, and lawn clippings with large amounts of "dry brown" carbon-rich materials such as fall leaves. Dead fall leaves are filled with trace minerals and nutrients that the tree's roots extracted from deep in the earth. These minerals and nutrients are missing in ordinary chemical fertilizers that you buy from gardening centers. It is best to shred the leaves before adding them to your pile in order to prevent them from getting matted together and blocking oxygen from reaching all parts of your compost. Dead leaves are one of two things that can be composted all by themselves (the other is barnyard manure, which we will discuss more later).
If you live in a place where fall leaves may not be an option for you or if you have started composting in a season other than autumn and have not stored any leaves from the previous fall, there are a few more options for adding carbon materials to your compost bin, although they will not add as much nutrients as dry leaves. These are straw (not hay), cornstalks, sawdust, woodchips, paper, and dried flowers or plants that have turned brown. Make sure that any big pieces are chopped up or shredded and if paper or sawdust are added that you make sure and mix well to avoid matting. Do not add any bleached paper. Shredded newspaper (black and white sections only) can now be added since the ink is soy-based instead of petroleum-based. However, as I said before if it is at all possible to get fall leaves do it. They are the best source for adding carbon-rich material to your compost pile or bin. A great way to have them available all year is to collect leaves in the fall and shred them right away- they will shrink in volume once they are shredded so you will be able to store more that way.
As far as nitrogen- rich materials, grass clippings are a great source although you may want to just leave them on your lawn as this can improve your grass. Another great source is, of course, your kitchen scraps. This includes any vegetable or fruit waste such as lettuce leaves, uneaten apple cores, and trimmed off roots. Any item that is large such as broccoli stalks or whole fruits should be chopped up into about one inch pieces (or at least quartered) before adding it in. Pieces that are too big will take longer to decompose. Tea bags and coffee grounds (including the filters if they are unbleached) of are also good to add in. Coffee grounds are one of the richest sources plant-feeding, compost-heating nitrogens there are. So if you don't drink coffee at home grab the left-over grounds from the office. You won't want to leave them out! Egg shells are a great way to add calcium to your compost. Just make sure that there is no egg left inside- give them a good rinse off, air-dry and crushing before throwing them in. Egg shells can prevent blossom-end rot in tomatoes, improve the health of your plants, and make vegetables taste better! If you live by a body of water and have access to seaweed add that to your compost as well. Seaweed is rich in micronutrients.
Now that you have a good idea what you should put in your compost bin, you probably are wondering if there are any things you cannot add or should avoid adding to your pile. Do not add egg insides, meat, bones, fat, dairy, or animal products. However, there is one exception. If you are composting inside a high-quality closed unit you can include lobster, crab, and shrimp shells. They are powerfully rich in nitrogen and will get your compost cooking hot. You should also not add charcoal or briquets, coal ashes, contaminated materials, pet or human waste, and plants affected with disease or severe insect attack where eggs may be present. Ivy and succulent plants, if not shredded or chopped shouldn't be added because they may start to grow in your compost bin or pile. This is the same for pernicious weeds. Never add weeds if they are in the seeded stage as you may end up with a pile full of weeds and once you add the compost to your garden you may be adding weeds to it as well. Do not add paper that has been chemically treated such as magazines or juice cartons which may have a plastic lining. You should not compost any nitrogen material alone. You will end up creating more of a garbage dump than compost and produce a horrible smell. All nitrogen-rich materials should be combined with carbon materials.
Although most people do not have access to barnyard animals, manure is a wonderful source for compost. It usually comes with bedding (straw or wood shavings) and has the ideal nirtogen- carbon ratio. Manure is the only other material that can be composted by itself besides dead leaves. However, this does not include feces from any meat- eating animal. Only include herbivore manure- horses, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, poultry, etc. Human and pet waste will carry too much of the wrong bacteria and will contaminate your pile and then your garden.
Composting is not just about what you put into your pile. It also has to do with water and oxygen. Compost needs the right amount of moisture and air to do its job properly. Now there are two different kinds of composting- both work but there is definitely a difference in the quality. The first is Cold Composting. Cold composting or anerobic composting is made without oxygen. It is the "pile it all up somewhere and eventually it will rot" kind of composting. This way is perfectly fine. For those who don't have a lot of time to spend, but still want to recycle their kitchen and yard waste this is a perfectly fine option and it is certainly better than throwing your organic waste in the garbage. Any organic matter will eventually decompose and become compost. However, this method may create a "garbagey" smell.
The second method is Hot Composting or aerobic composting. The center of a perfectly made pile will heat up to as much as 160 degrees, creating compost in the shortest amount of time possible and killing weed seeds and disease spores. After the compost cools and is reduced in volume by 1/3 to 1/2 it is ready to be checked for "doneness". When finished it should be like a wet sponge in consistency, dark and rich in color, and with a nice earthy odor- no questionable smells. In order to create hot compost you should keep a balance of about 4 parts shredded leaves to about 1 part "wet-green" nitrogen-rich material, by volume. The moisture content should be between 40%-60%. Which means your compost should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge or look damp and glistening underneath the top layer. Mixing your compost is a great way to increase the flow of oxygen throughout your pile. There are tools on the market that can help with that or compost tumblers that can be turned with a handle that make mixing a bit easier. If your compost is not getting enough water or air try poking holes in your pile with a stick or the end of a broom. You can use your hose to add water into those holes. If your pile is too wet add dry leaves or other "brown" material.
So now you know what to add and what to leave out of your compost pile. you also know that you should have a good balance of nitrogen and carbon-rich materials. The key to good composting is the diversity of materials. Different sizes, textures, and chemical compositions of materials make for better compost structure, drainage, and nutrient content. Most of all you need to have the three main ingredients- Food, Water, and Oxygen- just like any living thing!
Annie Nowicki would like you to visit her website at:
You will find many products there to help you get started composting or improve your composting. Best of Luck!
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