Composting is both an art and a science, but don’t let the science scare you! Composting can be simplified to the following key steps:
1.Layer upon layer of “stuff.” A compost pile is like a sandwich—every layer has a purpose, but the layers work best together. Why layers? Because, together, the layers create insulation (more about generated heat below) and a balance of carbon and nitrogen (ratio of 30:1 by weight)—the two elements needed to feed microorganisms that will run around your compost pile decomposing every bit.
The first layer in your compost pile should be about 6 inches of dry, carbon-rich, brown materials (see below), followed by a 6-inch layer of green, nitrogen rich materials (see below). Because this hodgepodge isn’t compact, air can circulate between all the materials. Then, add a 2-inch layer of manure or already decomposed compost, and finish with topsoil. Repeat the layers, adding water to the dry layers until you have a 4-foot tall pile.
Brown Material (Carbon Rich)
Paper products: newspaper, cardboard, shredded paper
Straw (avoid hay as it adds weedy seed heads)
Green Material (Nitrogen Rich)
Non-woody plant cuttings
2.Temperature and moisture…check! While the layers are decomposing, the bacteria and microorganisms heat things up—literally. But that’s good because heat means that the microorganisms are doing their job of breaking down material. Purchase a compost thermometer from your local garden center or just hold your hand over the top of the pile to feel the heat radiating. If it feels cool (under 50ºF), the pile is likely too dry, or needs more nitrogen/green stuff. Add water until the material is moist. You want those microorganisms to keep working, and they only do when they have water. Your compost pile should smell pleasantly earthy. If you notice an offensive odor while your pile is decomposing, it could indicate an issue. Keep “a nose” out for: the smell of ammonia (too rich in nitrogen/green stuff), or the smell of rotten eggs (from not enough air circulation).
3.Turn it. When it’s 140º–160ºF in the center, the microorganisms haven eaten everything in the center, and it’s time to “turn” the pile and mix the layers together. Use a pitchfork or a rototiller to get the compost blended. How often you should turn your compost varies depending on where you live. In areas with cold winters, your compost pile could take all winter before you need to turn it. In warmer climates, you may need to turn it every few weeks.
4. Harvest your black gold. Your compost is ready when the material is dark and crumbly. You may need to sort out some of the larger material from your compost before using it. A wood frame covered in hardware cloth works well for sorting into a wheel barrow. Leave some of the finished compost behind to seed the next pile with hard working microbes. Work the compost into your garden soil before sowing, or use it in a seed-starting mix. In addition to making your own fertilizer and diverting waste away from landfills, compost improves soil structure, improving water retention and nutrient availability.