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As spring gets nearer, the need for a good pile compost is on the rise. We want to condition those gardens with fertility, soil life, and moisture-retaining carbon matter. Nothing does it quite so convincingly as compost does.

However, most home compost piles take months to mature into something useable. After all, we don’t want to be spreading fresh vegetable scraps and such all over the garden. That’s not how compost works. In other words, we might need a method that gives us the good stuff without all the waiting.

Luckily, we aren’t the only people to ever think such a thing. Scientists at top universities have worked to develop methods for making quality compost faster, and none has been so successful as the Berkeley method. In under a month, just 18 days actually, it’s possible to go from raw materials to refined compost.

How do we do that, you ask. It’s easier than you think.

The Right Ingredients

Source: Give it a Grow/YouTube

Any good compost pile requires a mixture of carbon-rich materials, such as hay, shredded paper or leaves, and nitrogen-rich materials, like food scraps, fresh grass clippings, or coffee grounds. Put these components together, add a bit of air and water, and magic happens. Microorganisms, worms, and insects take up residents in the pile, and it begins to decompose, converting waste into a wonderful soil amendment.

The Right Tools

For many of today’s “compostable” items, such as take-out cups and bio-plastic utensils, composting takes serious equipment that heats and turns the pile constantly. That is not the case with the 18-day Berkeley method. Here’s what we’ll need and why:

  • A weedwhacker or lawnmower can be used to chop up leaves, hay, or straw into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces mean faster composting. Shredded paper—as in a paper shredder—can work as well. The point is that we’ve got to chop all the carbon items into small pieces. Sawdust and wood shavings can also go into the mix.
  • A good compost fork, which is a little different than a garden fork, makes turning the compost—a big part of this system—easier. A compost fork has thinner tines and usually a couple more than a garden fork, which is more for digging. A compost fork is for scooping.
  • A water hose is going to be integral to make a good, hot compost pile. As we layer and stack the material, it will need to be moistened thoroughly throughout. Without water, the pile will not heat up quickly as we need it to.
  • A tarp or sheet of plastic. This is to cover the pile once we’ve constructed it. We’ll have measured our moisture levels, so we need to keep the pile from getting much wetter in the rain or drying out in the sun.

The Right Stacking

Source: Honest Open Permaculture/YouTube

In the beginning, we want to go with roughly two-thirds a cubic yard (or more) of brown (carbon-rich) material and one-third green (nitrogen-rich). This will vary depending on what we use for these materials. The ideal is a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1.

In reality, this can be difficult to develop because each individual material has its own ratio to factor into the whole. For example, urine has a 1:1 ratio, coffee grounds are 20:1, and shredded newspaper is 175:1. How does one factor all of these ratios together to come up with the ideal 30:1 ratio in a mixed pile?

Start with two-thirds brown and one-third green. This won’t be perfect, but if it’s off, we can read the signs and adjust within the first week. We’ll still get compost in under a month.

  • If the compost isn’t heating up by the first time we turn it, then it’s likely that there isn’t enough nitrogen and/or water. Disperse a bucket or two of food scraps or grass clippings when turning it.
  • If the compost is sloppy and stinky when we turn it, then there is likely too much nitrogen. Scatter a bucket or two of pine needles or shredded paper when turning it.

There are equally important—and often overlooked— aspects of a quick compost pile, aka hot compost.

  • All of the materials need to be compiled at the same time, and the total volume needs to be a minimum of a cubic yard (three feet on wide all the way around and three feet tall).
  • Furthermore, we want to layer it: four five-gallon buckets of brown then two buckets of green material, each section soaked with water as we prepare the six buckets for the next layer. We should be able to pick up a handful of the compost a just squeeze out a drop of water.

The Right Schedule

Once the pile is made, we have to adhere to a strict turning schedule. We wait four days before turning it the first time. When turning it, we should peel off the outside layers first, putting that part in the middle of the new heap. After that, we turn the pile every other day. If all goes right, the compost will be ready on the 18th day. If we have to make adjustments to get the carbon-nitrogen ratio right, then we should add two more days (one more turn) each time we adjust.

Within a month, we’ll have healthy, vibrant compost to add to our gardens. That’s hard to beat, and the fresh vegetables will prove it.

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