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Compost, or at least an attempt at it, is becoming commonplace, and that’s a great thing. Not only is it one of the greenest habits we can all adopt for the good of the planet, but also the end result is something incredibly useful for growing a bit our own food, another green gesture we can all be doing for the mother earth (and ourselves for that matter).
All that said, without a doubt, stories of failed composts are almost as commonplace as composting itself. Many of us have been lead to believe that it’s as simple as throwing all of our kitchen scraps into a box and letting it rot. However, the truth is that this will more likely result in a fly-infested, smelly mess. Composting can be easy, but there is a little more to it than kitchen scraps.
So, for the novice and experienced composter alike, here are a few tips, techniques and clues gleaned from master composters, for making the pile work a little better.
1. Use Plenty of Carbon Material
A good compost has far, far more carbon material than nitrogen. Kitchen scraps and fresh grass clippings fall in the nitrogen category, while paper, cardboard, wood shavings, and leaves (call it tree matter) are typical carbon elements. In general, compost recipes call for a 25 or 30 to one ratio (volume) of a carbon to nitrogen (or equal parts by weight). When we just pile a bunch of nitrogen elements, it attracts pests and rodents, as well as turns into a big, rotten mess. Carbon material absorbs the smell and the moisture, as well as adds the bulk in a finished compost.
2. Shred the Carbon Material
Carbon materials usually come in the form of sheets are leaves, and large items like this take a while to break down. As well, they can mat together, causing oxygen flow problems within the pile. Wise composters shred or chop all paper, boxes, leaves, straw, or hay that go into a bin. This creates more pockets of oxygen and makes the materials more bite-sized for the organisms processing the compost.
3. Use Plenty of Water
Compost requires a lot of water. Professionals go to great pains in noting this. The drawback to all that carbon material we added is that it is rather dry, and the pile needs to be moist in order to perform that mojo. A properly hydrated compost pile is often compared to a wrung out sponge, and Geoff Lawton, permaculture guru, has described even further by explaining that a firm squeeze should yield one drop of water. If a compost pile seems stagnant, check the water level.
4. Microorganisms Make the Difference
The reasons that compost piles heat up and break down as they do can be attributed to microorganisms that are busy within it, chowing away at the materials. While compost piles will eventually build up microorganism of their own, a good tip is to give them a head start by inoculating the pile. There are organic products on the market that are used for this, but really it’s as simple as adding a bit of the previous compost. Many people also like to add a scoop of soil from a natural forest floor, or they just pee (that’s right) on it.
5. Use Worms for Bulk Food Waste
In reality, many of us don’t create (or set aside for composting) as much “brown”, carbon waste in our homes as we do kitchen scraps. This leaves us with an overabundance of “green,” nitrogen-rich material. If this is the case, using composting worms is a much more efficient way to handle this waste. They will happily gobble up the food, leaving behind vermicompost (worm droppings), something much more bacterial wondrous than what happens in a typical compost bin. Clever five-gallon vermicompost bins can be made right into the garden or under the kitchen sink.
6. Add More at Once for Quicker Results
Most new composters build a bin and slowly fill it up with small batches of material, and for the purposes of handling the household waste, this makes perfect sense. However, for the purpose of creating a fast-acting compost, this isn’t the best. What works is best is adding all of the components all at once, making sure to mix the nitrogen and carbon elements. The pile needs to be at least a cubic yard in order to have the volume necessary to heat up enough to get the job done speedily.
7. Use Your Muscles to Turn It
The big complaint many have for composting, including unnamed authors, is that to do it really quickly, composters really need to turn the pile. The Berkley Method, one of the most respected quick composting techniques, has gardeners out there turning the pile every couple of days, but the result is a ready-to-use compost in less than a month. The reason is oxygen. Turning the pile introduces fresh oxygen, which gets all those decomposing engines revved up and working again.
For those who have tried composting and came away disappointed, perhaps now is a good time to give it a go again, and for those who are a bit more seasoned, hopefully, one or two of these tips improve results and the rest rang true.