This is an essential guide for anyone looking to start composting. With the basic information found below, you'll be creating high quality compost in no time.
It's important to manage variables, such as aeration, moisture, and the proper balance of inputs, to ensure a successful composting experience.
The size of your pile plays an important part in protecting the microbe population within. If the pile is too small, it will be harder to maintain temperature and moisture levels. 1 cubic yard is the perfect backyard size for a pile, as it is insulated enough to stay warm in most climates, but still a very manageable size. You will be amazed as to how much better your pile performs once you reach this "critical mass" of about 1 cubic yard.
Aeration is the process of regularly turning the compost pile to allow oxygen to mix with the material, which helps speed up the decomposition process.
Moisture is also important for successful composting, as too much moisture can lead to anaerobic conditions, while too little moisture can slow the decomposition process. If you can clump it together and it holds without dripping, you're doing pretty well.
Feed Stocks refer to the organic materials used when composting, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, leaves, and grass clippings. A balance of green materials (nitrogen-rich) and brown materials (carbon-rich) is needed to maximize efficiency. There are MANY opinions as to the best ratio. At a minimum, you'll want a 1:1 ratio of brown to green materials. A higher brown content (up to 4:1) will keep odors down while providing more carbon to the microbial population. If you have more green material than brown material, expect odors and pests.
Examples of Green Feed Stocks (nitrogen and/or protein rich): coffee grounds, vegetable and fruit scraps, tea leaves, grass clippings, egg shells, and much more. Meat can be composted, though it will invite wildlife and pest issues. Whenever possible, we recommend focusing on reducing meat waste rather than trying to compost it.
Examples of Brown Feed Stocks (carbon / carbohydrate rich): dry leaves, straw, saw dust, paper, shredded cardboard, and much more.
In the image below, browns and greens were layered, alternating until the piles were full. The older pile on the right has nearly finished composting. You can see some of the brown feed stocks (straw in this case) have not been fully broken down. No worries. They will be sifted out and composted again. You can also see how much the piles can reduce over time. As materials are broken down and moisture is naturally reduced, the piles will shrink to as little as half of their original volume.
The temperature of your pile will tell a lot about what's going on inside. A good long-stem compost thermometer is a valuable tool. A healthy and active pile may range anywhere from 100 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. These temperatures will spike shortly after mixing the greens and browns together, as microbial activity increases. As oxygen and moisture are depleted, the temperature will begin to drop. This let's you know it's time to turn your piles. This means, you need to mix everything up again to allow oxygen to be reintroduced. You'll also want to add moisture, as necessary, to keep the pile cooking. Just add enough to get back to the clumped but not dripping quality.
In the STEP UP YOUR GAME section of the compost library, we'll go into options that will improve aeration and moisture control in order to keep your piles cooking longer, and with less effort. From aeration pipes to moisture control coverings, there are several inexpensive ways to improve your compost's quality and reduce labor on a budget (maybe even FREE).