I have been enjoying my time at the Wheeler Farm Farmer’s Market talking to people about composting. It seems a lot of people have a real interest in learning organic principles and getting more involved in growing their own nutritious food in their backyards. I also encounter skepticism of the composting process due to people having bad experiences with plastic compost systems. People also believe the composting process is complicated and a lot of work. In reality the process is simple but there is some work to the process. Building and turning the compost bins can be an enjoyable experience as is screening the “black gold” and using it throughout the vegetable garden and flower beds. A new layer of compost really perks up the soil and makes the garden soil much more rich and visually appealing.
People ask why they should compost. Compost adds fertility, feeds all the beneficial organisms in the soil and creates the “tilth” ie: the looseness of the soil needed for a healthy garden. The reality of garden soil is that most of the organic matter in the soil is used up each year by plants, worms and other microorganisms. If new organic matter is not added regularly the soil becomes gray and hard pan which reducing the fertility, water absorption and retention ability and beneficial microorganism activity. Thus, productivity will decrease and the number of hard to kill weeds will increase as weeds love compact, low fertility soil.
A person can buy organic material from stores, or find a good source of compost or horse, cattle or poultry manure. If you don’t have a cheap or free source of manure or compost, you will have to spend a lot of money for organic matter if you want to keep your soil healthy and productive. Why not make your own compost from free leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste? Seems funny to think of throwing out the very ingredients you are driving to the store to purchase.
People who have had bad experiences with composting usually make one of two (or both) common mistakes. The first is to utilize a single compost bin when trying to make a lot of compost. Problem with a single bin is that you cannot separate new material from older material so coming up with separated finished compost is very difficult. Also it is harder to mix the materials without a new place to move it to (flip it). The second mistake is that people don’t use the proper ratio of brown and green material when “building” the compost piles in the bins. No, you don’t have to be perfect in ratios and measuring material is unnecessary. You just have to have a good eye and layer build your piles with three parts brown material (leaves and yellow grass clippings) to one part green material (fresh plant material and grass clippings). Start with brown material on the bottom of the pile to eliminate any slime and smell from green grass clippings. Limit your layers of brown material to about one foot thick followed by a three or so inch layer of green material. Wet each layer but don’t make is soppy. Keep layering and wetting the material as described until the bin is heaping with material.
Going back to the first problem (single bin), don’t use a single bin unless you have a very limited amount of yard/kitchen waste to compost. A multiple bin system (two, three or more bins), is the ideal way to compost as you can keep similar aged material composting together while always having a bin to place new material. My bins are made of cedar and redwood which are rot resistant. I enclose my bins with hardware cloth which maximizes the air flow essential to the composting process and the front cedar slats are removable to allow easy access to the materials.
Lack of oxygen causes anaerobic decomposition which is smelly, slimy and nasty stuff. People experiencing this situation would naturally be skeptical of the process. A properly mixed compost pile does not smell and the finished compost actually has a pleasant, sweet soil smell.
Once you have a full bin you simply flip the material with a pitch fork to the next bin which mixes the green and brown material together (with water) which quickly activates the composting process. Each week you need to flip the bin or mix the bin again to keep the decomposition process going. The piles will shrink as they compost. You will be amazed to find the newly turned pile steaming with an internal temperature of around 160 to 170 degrees. This temperature is essential in killing the potential pathogens in the raw materials while at the same time being hot enough to kill weed seeds. Essentially the bins are cooking the compost at this temperature for a week to ten days. The material actually turns gray and it appears singed. Each week you turn the piles the temperature will rise (but not to the extent of the initial turning).
People who put raw materials in the ground without composting do not take advantage of these benefits which puts their health potentially at risk (especially root and leaf crops), and also adds to the hours or weeding. Raw materials also rob nutrients from the plants as the microorganisms in the soil are hard at work breaking down the material rather than dying off and supplying the plants with the subsequent nutrients.
Once the material has been flipped (turned), four to five times, you will have compost material that is ready for screening.
I use a compost screen that fits on my wheelbarrow. I use a pitchfork to place a limited amount of material on the screen at a time. I use my hands to move the material over the screen which has quarter inch hardware cloth. The material that screens into the wheelbarrow is finished compost and the material that does not screen through goes back into the bin for further decomposition.
The very act of screening helps break down the material, thus speeding up the decomposition process for the remaining material. Screening the material also allows for the separation of the red worms from the compost to put back in the bins.
A full wheelbarrow is about 25 gallons of compost. Think how much you would spend on this amount of material in bags at the store. Probably at least twenty dollars as a conservative estimate. I have a four bin system and I literally screen thousands of gallons of compost each year. To make this much compost I have to stock pile a lot of leaves in the fall to use throughout the summer when brown material is scarce. I also collect a bag or two of grass clippings from neighbors each week. Just make sure the grass has not been recently treated with chemicals and herbicides as chemicals stay in the clippings for weeks.
When I clean out my chicken coop and pen I throw the straw and manure in the first bin. This material contains both brown and green material (fresh manure) in about the right ratio mixed together so I just use this material as a complete layer. I utilize red worms (commonly called red wigglers) in all my bins. These are special species of worms that live in leaf litter and manure. These are not the big earthworms you use for fishing.
Red worms greatly help in the decomposition process while also adding their nutrient rich castings that are readily absorbed by plants. The worms rapidly reproduce and my chickens love to dig in the compost bins for the tasty treats.
I can start getting finished screened compost in about four weeks. The smaller the size of the organic matter makes decomposition quicker so shredding leaves and collecting grass from a mulching mower speeds up the process.
That is the long and short of the compost story. You will get a little exercise and the savings of making your own compost will quickly overcome the cost of a multiple bin system. With all the news stories about food borne illnesses it is nice to know where your food comes from. What’s better than from your own backyard?