As a gardener, you likely already know about compost. Kitchen scraps, leaves, hay, grass clippings, and other organic materials, when placed in a compost bin or pile, turn into rich soil to use in your garden. Composting is a natural process. You can say it's the most important recycling process in the ecosystem. Every living thing on the planet eventually dies and breaks down into soil to help new plant life (and, subsequently, every other living thing) flourish. We want to simulate this process on a small-scale in our backyard. Instead buying fertilizers and soil every year, compost is a great way to not only have access to a constant and free source of nutrient-rich dirt, it also helps cut down on the amount of garbage we throw into landfills.
The process can be very slow. Normally, composting material doesn't become usable soil until the following year. I thought that was the way it was, until I found out that, under proper conditions, compost can actually be made in a month or two. The rate of decomposition has to do with microscopic bacteria and other microorganisms that live and thrive in your pile. The key is to give them everything they need to work and multiply. The more microbes you have and the more you feed them, the faster your pile will compost!
Step 1 - Have the Proper Size Pile
Compost only happens if the center of the pile is hot enough to quicken the decomposition process. To maintain this at all times, your pile needs to be at least three cubic feet, or about three feet tall by three feet wide (the size of a large garbage can). This allows heat to be retained, even on colder days. Piles larger than five cubic feet are too big, as they do not effectively allow air to reach the center.
Step 2 - Keep the Pile Moist, but Not Too Moist
Like any living animal, the microbes in your pile need water to survive. Your compost should be moist but not sopping wet, like the texture of a wrung-out sponge. Too wet and fermentation sets in, making it smell; too dry and the microbes will die. If, after a heavy rainfall, your pile is sopping wet, add dry leaves, shredded newspaper, or dry wood chips to soak up some of the water. Then, check every few days to make sure it hasn't become too dry. If it does, just mist it down gently until you get the moisture you need.
Step 3 - Allow Oxygen to Reach All Areas of the Pile
Good microbes need oxygen to survive as well; this is why you can't make your pile too big. A wet, oxygen-poor pile encourages anaerobic bacteria growth (microbes that do not need oxygen to survive), making your pile sour and smelly like a swamp. Actually, this is why swamps smell the way they do; a swamp is nothing more than a massive anaerobic mess of composting. This composting will be slow and slimy. You do not want this, and neither do your neighbors.
To encourage oxygen-rich, smell-free microbes, turn your pile often to aerate it. Take a pitch fork, shovel, or special compost tool and literally twist and sift the compost pile, allowing oxygen in. Turn the center of the pile out towards the sides, and turn the material on the sides into the hot center. Ideally, turn your compost once a week. If that does not produce compost as quickly as desired, turn it more often.
This is the reason compost tumblers are so effective. The action of tumbling the compost around helps aerate the materials, resulting in super-fast compost making.
Step 4 - Layer Your Compost with Green and Brown Materials
Your busy microbes need two types of food to thrive: green, nitrogen-based material for protein and brown, carbon-based material for energy. Mix these in layers for optimal effect, at a ratio of about 1/3 green material and 2/3 brown material. If you add too much green the decomposers will work too fast and use up all of the oxygen, causing the pile to smell. If you add too much brown, the pile will decompose very slowly. Green materials include kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, fresh grass clippings while brown materials are things like old leaves, wood chips, and shredded newspaper. Also, you should shred your brown materials before adding them. The smaller you can get them, the faster they will decompose. Your compost is ready to use when it is dark, earthy smelling, and crumbly.
When adding new materials, sprinkle water on them if they are not damp, and then add some extra soil from your garden to introduce more microbes already in the soil.
Follow these steps to maintain moisture and oxygen levels and your pile will heat and decompose quickly. Before you know it, you'll have fresh compost in about a month or two! Top it up in your garden beds to introduce more nutrients or use it as mulch. There is nothing better for your garden!