Tom Kerr writing on homesteading

Composting is such a clever way to reduce your waste and cut your garbage collection bills. You also get to improve the soil conditions of your garden when there is too much clay or not enough nutrients; help sandy soils retain water; and get free fertilizer and mulch.

But most people don’t know how to accelerate the decomposition process that turns those scraps into useful compost – instead of a smelly pile of rotting, moldy rubbish. The key is to achieve ideal microbial conditions.

Compost is made from air, water, and plant matter. If there is too much water, the compost pile with become rotten and stagnant. Too much plant material – or materials that are too dense such as leaves and twigs – and the ingredients will take too long to decompose. Pockets of air are also needed to oxygenize the blend and circulate warmth throughout the pile to “cook” the compost.

A standard recipe calls for air, water, and “two parts of browns and one part of greens.” Browns are ingredients that are high in carbon – and are usually brownish in color, while greens contain high amounts of nitrogen.

The microorganisms that break-down compost burn the carbon for energy, just as humans burn “carbs” when they exercise. To grow strong, these microorganisms need protein – just as humans need protein to grow muscle. People need vital air and water, and micro-organisms do, too. The goal is to give a healthy, a well-balanced diet to the hidden organisms that do the cellular-level work of composting.

When a compost pile has the proper ratio of these ingredients, the process happens faster and produces outstanding results. Piles with excessive nitrogen produce ammonia, which makes them stink. Too much carbon, and the microbe population doesn’t grow fast enough because it lacks fuel.

But if you know how to make tossed salad, you can make fantastic compost – because both recipes call for the same action.

  • Use fresh grass clippings, which are very high in nitrogen; dead leaves, dirt, or other brown matter for protein. Toss in whatever plant and vegetable compost you have – which will contain elements of both nitrogen and protein.
  • Build your pile by spreading a thick layer of grass clippings and other green matter on the ground. Then cover that with enough dirt to hide the green. On top of that add a layer of kitchen compost such as discarded vegetables and eggshells. Now it’s time to toss that salad with gloved hands, a shovel, or a pitchfork, to blend all the layers.
  • Repeat the process to build the pile as high as you want. But note that if the pile is too small, it won’t heat up inside – and heat helps break-down the ingredients. The minimum size for a good compost pile should be four feet wide, four feet deep, and four feet tall.

Personally, I like to create compost piles that are the size of small haystacks – about six feet in diameter and five or six feet high. I don’t generate many leftovers at home, and I maintain a garden instead of a manicured lawn, so I will collect grass clippings from neighbors and salvage boxes of overripe produce from the local farmer’s market trash bins. To increase warmth by capturing solar heat, and to help mask the odor, I cover my piles with a plastic tarp.

When I can stick my hand into the pile and feel warmth, I use a pitchfork to toss it so that I form a new pile right next to where the existing one was, making sure that the outside of the old pile winds up at the center or core of the new one. Doing that can dramatically reduce composting time by accelerating the process.

Another great trick is to add some active microbes to your pile, to give the chemical reaction a jump-start. I typically use mushroom compost or manure for that boost. Whenever the pile dries out, I dampen it with a garden hose or remove the tarp to expose it to a light rain. But don’t let it get soggy or it will stop “percolating.”

Smaller bits of material have more surfaces for microorganisms do their work, so the more you can shred compost materials before adding them to a pile, the better. Thicker leaves also break down too slowly, so if you cannot crumble a leaf into powdery pieces in your hand it may not be a good leaf for your compost pile.

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