The last few days have been super busy, organising soil and compost for my new vegetable gardens and my sisters new gardens. I have been asked quite a few times recently about composting, the do’s and don’ts and different variations of composting for smaller urban lots. So today I thought I would write a post to help provide a little more insight into whats going on inside your compost heap and how to make great nutrient rich compost for your plants.
How a Compost Pile Works.
When thinking about starting a garden of any kind the most important thing is soil health, and the health of your soil is directly related to the life that lives within the soil. Within your soil there are billions and I do mean billions of microscopic bacterial and fungal elements along with insects, worms, spiders and other vertebrae. These microorganisms are key players in the decomposition process that turns that big steaming pile of whatever you threw in there to become the nutrient rich all you can eat buffet for plants, that we call compost, or what I like to call, Black Gold! There are four main elements needed in order for the decomposition process to be complete.
- Micro-organisms; The aforementioned superstars that get way too little credit for the amount of work they do. These little guys eat up all your scraps and then poop them out. (I know how hard is it to eat and poop all day?) but this isn’t just any poop, this is super concentrated nutrient rich plant food poop.
- Heat; This comes from the sun and is stored by the thermal mass (dense materials that hold heat for long periods of time) of your compost pile
- Oxygen; The compost pile is a living ‘breathing’ organism and it needs access to oxygen in order for everything inside to breakdown properly. This is where turning your pile comes in.
- Water; Just as any living thing needs water to survive, so too does a compost pile, otherwise it would just remain a dry heap of decaying weeds, food scraps and poop.
So What Do You Put In Your Compost Pile?
Okay so we’ve spoken a little bit about how the system itself works but what do you actually put in it? Compostable materials are classified into two categories which provide nitrogen and carbon for your compost; Green waste which are the nitrogen components and Brown waste which are the carbon components. These materials are best to be added in layers to your pile with a ratio of 60% brown waste – 40% green waste.
Brown Waste, Carbon Rich;
- Dry leaves
- Hay or straw
- Newspaper and non glossy paper (shredded)
- Pine needles and pine cones
- Cardboard; egg cartons and old boxes (shredded, not painted or inked)
- Chopped up twigs and sticks
- Wood ash
- Dryer Lint
- Nail clippings
- Chopped up prunings from trees and shrubs (no thicker than 1 inch)
- Corn cobs and stalks
- Egg shells
- Nutrient deficient soil (clay and sand)
- Wood chips
Green Waste, Nitrogen Rich;
- Grass clippings
- Fruit and Vegetable scraps
- Tea leaves and bags (used, remove strings and staples)
- Coffee Grounds (used)
- Weeds pulled from the garden (avoid weeds that have gone to seed)
- Fresh cut leaves (Banana leaves, comfrey leaves and other chop and drop style leaves)
- Flower cuttings
- Table scraps (no meat)
- Herbivore Manure (chickens, horses, cows, goats, sheep, ducks, rabbits etc.)
- Seaweed and kelp
- Pet fur and the hair from your brush
What Not To Add;
- Dog, cat or human manure
- Meat and bones
- Citrus peels (some can be added but too many will make the pile very acidic.. Not great for plants except blueberries)
- Dairy products
- Diseased plants
- Oils and fats
Building Your Compost Pile
When starting a compost pile I like to build two large boxes (three is ideal but two will work fine for a smaller area) side by side about 1m cubed each with the front only built half way up but with removable panels. You can also use the large black composting bins sold at nurseries and other outdoor specialist stores if space is an issue. Once construction is complete it’s time to start adding materials, I have a small compost bucket in my kitchen where I add all my kitchen scraps and fill it pretty much daily. Every time I empty this bucket onto the pile I fill it with water to clean it and then pour that onto the pile as well. Once a nice layer of Green waste is added I cover it with a layer of brown waste, water it again and then repeat, I cover it over with an old cardboard box in between additions. The box is to retain moisture, trap heat inside and to keep the dogs and birds out. When the first box is about half full i get out my pitchfork and turn it over into the second box, this allows oxygen into the pile which is necessary for decomposition. When it’s full i turn it again back to the first box, water it again and cover it over to sit. Then I start filling the second box. By the time the second box is full (around 2-3 months) the first box should be broken down into beautiful nutrient rich black gold and ready to use. Spread the compost into your gardens and mix it through the existing soil and then repeat the process.
Don’t Have a Backyard?
If you live in an apartment or town house and grow all of your plants on a balcony, don’t worry you can still make compost on a smaller scale for your potted up babies. One very popular method for super small space composting is the Bokashi Bucket System.
Bokashi bucket systems can be bought online for around $50 -$100 or you can try your hand at making your own. The system works Anaerobically (without oxygen). This method is great because it only uses a single 5 -10 gallon bucket with a tap attached to the base, a tight lid and inoculated bran, rice or sawdust. You can even add meat and dairy products. The inoculated additives are how the system works, it uses bacteria that thrive in acidic oxygen starved environments to breakdown materials quickly. However the bucket itself only completes half of the decomposition cycle. The contents of the bucket after 10-12 days will need to be dug into the ground and left for 1 month before it can be added to your garden. Which can be a challenge if you have absolutely no backyard, but not to worry what you can do is buy a bag of soil, empty half of it out and add the contents of your bucket to the bag, mix it through and leave it to sit.
What To Do
- Lightly coat any kitchen scraps with Inoculated bran, rice or sawdust (you can make your own by adding yeast and molasses to your host substance and then soak for 1 week, allowing the bacteria to grow. Then dry dry it out and bag it in an airtight bag) (I have not tried this but thats the basics of how it works)
- Add coated scraps to the bucket, cover with another layer of bran and then press it down with a plate and put the lid on.
- Repeat this process until the bucket is full
- Once the bucket is full leave it to sit for 10-12 days. Inside the bucket a liquid called Leachate is created, using the tap drain this liquid out every second day and discard. (it is an inevitable byproduct of anaerobic composting).
- After 12 days bury the contents of the bucket in soil to allow the decomposition process to complete. After one month it will be safe to use on the garden or in your pots.
Composting is a really incredible way to see natures full cycle, in a forest ecosystem ‘compost’ is called Humus and is a naturally occurring process of life, death and rebirth. To fully understand this cycle is one of lifes greatest lessons as it teaches respect of all things and how nothing should ever go to waste because even in death, naturally occurring elements are still useful, that includes you!
There are many different forms of composting, I only really covered two of them today, so this week I will try to write another post that covers Vermi-composting and how to make compost teas. Thank you again for reading and my apologies for the amount of times I said ‘poop’ in this post. I hope this has been helpful to anyone with questions about composting. If you enjoyed this one please check out my other posts by clicking one of the links below 🙂
Yo solo quiero poner mi manos en la tierraMy favourite sentence I learnt in Spanish. “I just want to put my hands on the earth”