How to Compost: Getting Started Composting

We will look at how to make compost, but first let me define what composting is.  Composting is where organic matter is changed to a soil like matter through decomposition.  This process is something that is natural in nature, where bacteria, fungi, insects, and earthworms break down organic matter.  Decomposition is happening everywhere around us whenever a plant or tree dies.  However, this may be a slow process, therefore our goal is to speed up the process so we can use the recycled nutrients in our garden.   The correct amounts of both water and oxygen are necessary for creating compost from organic matter.  The breakdown of organic matter releases, carbon dioxide, heat, and water.

If you put your organic materials in a pile and let it sit there, after a long period of time it will decompose.  This is known as passive composting, where no further action is taken on the compost pile.  In contrast active composting is where you actively promote decomposition and can obtain the compost you want in as few as two to five weeks.  To achieve such rapid results you need to keep your compost pile moist, it must be turned over to allow for aeration, and you need to maintain the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio.  Keep in mind the organic matter you are starting with, will have an impact on how long it will take the compost heap to decompose.

You should maintain a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about thirty to one to achieve the best results.  This is because the bacteria that will decomposing your organic matter need carbon as the source of their energy, and need just of touch of nitrogen to synthesize protein.  If there is not nitrogen present the process may be slowed down.  However if there is too much nitrogen too much ammonia gas may be generated.  As a rule of thumb, carbon can be found in leaves, while good nitrogen sources include fresh cut grass, and manures.  The microorganisms are most effective where the compost heap is in contact with the air.  The smaller the size of the particles in the compost the more surface area exposed, thus the faster matter will decompose.

A compost pile must be rotated to allow for the addition of oxygen.  When oxygen is present the decomposition is known as aerobic decomposition.  This aeration can be achieved by turning your compost pile over with a pitch fork.  Or if you are using a solid structure, you should allow for ventilation to let oxygen in.  While a pitch fork is adequate to turn a compost pile over, there is a specialized tool called an aerator the will help the process as well.  A compost pile should be about 50 percent water.  If the pile gets much drier than this the microorganisms activity will begin to slow dramatically.  However if it gets much wetter than this proper aeration is impeded and nutrients may flow away.  A compost pile should have feel of a sponge that has been wrung out.

The temperature of your compost pile should be between 90 and 140F.  This will allow the microorganisms to function best.  You can obtain a thermometer to gauge exactly how hot your compost pile is.  By maintaining the proper combination of all of the above ingredients you should be successful composting.  Like anything else it will take practice and experience to achieve the best results.

2 comments

  1. Raven

    Thanks for this explanation. I’ve just put together a compost bin that is suspended on a frame for turning. I’ve added my kitchen scraps and some leaves and paper. Do I need a compost “activator” to help the process get started”. They sell some liquid bacteria stuff at Home Depot — I don’t know if I need it.

  2. Thanks for the info. I have started my compost bin which I started at the of November of last year. It seems doing good, it is slowly working but I can see the compost has started to form. Do i need a compost activator?

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