In our last blog post, we suggested making a compost bin for your end-of-summer project. Now that summer is coming to a close, it is time to put that compost bin to use! As the weather in Colorado begins to cool, plants begin to die and leaves start to fall, and a compost bin is a perfect place to recycle these plants. What’s great about composting is that it gives you a place to store all of your organic waste, and it also turns into an organic fertilizer that you can use to enrich your soil next year.
What is compost?
Compost is the material that results from organic material decomposition. This organic material is a wonderful fertilizer and enriches the soil. “Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes account for most of the decomposition activity in a compost pile,” explains Dave Wilson, research agronomist at the Rodale Institute.
Decomposition is also cultivated by airflow, heat, and the combination of carbon and nitrogen elements. Even though Colorado Springs has a cooler climate, the microorganisms in the compost pile can actually self-generate heat if layered correctly. If you see your pile steaming, don’t worry! It actually means that your compost is alive and well. Organic Gardening has some great suggestions for composting in a cooler climate.
What can I put into my compost?
Anything that has grown from the earth can be put into your compost, but not everything will be beneficial for your compost. For example, perennial weeds and diseased plants should not be added because they can actually spread with the compost when you use it on your soil next year – yikes!
Food items are a great addition to your compost, but be careful not to put anything super processed or covered in pesticides in the pile. Unfortunately, most banana, peach and orange peels have a heavy dose of pesticides that could ruin your compost. Most likely, your organic produce won’t have as many issues with pesticides. Coffee grounds and eggshells are great materials to use because they are nitrogen-rich.
Never put any type of meat, fish or bones into the compost, because it will exude a pungent odor as the decomposition process begins and attract critters. Some things will break down faster than others, but for the most part, anything plant-based will decompose eventually.
How should I layer my compost?
When you are building it, be sure to keep the bottom open so that your first layer of your bin is the natural ground. Because of this, you want to make sure your compost is in an area that you don’t mind having a permanent pile or bin. Start your compost with the dead leaves you rake up this fall, and then add the rest to the top as you go.
The ideal compost mix has layers of brown and green, or carbon and nitrogen ingredients. Carbon ingredients, also referred to as brown ingredients, are things such as leaves, straw, cardboard, wood chippings, etc. Nitrogen ingredients, or green ingredients, are moist plants (freshly picked or mowed that have not been sprayed with weed killer) or manure. Most likely you will be adding large amounts of grass and leaves in at a time, so make sure you use a rake to mix it well with your other materials so that they can aerate properly.
An active compost pile has a carbon (brown) to nitrogen (green) ratio of 30:1, and it is important to keep that balance because too much carbon can slow composition, and too much nitrogen will put off a strong stench.
What kind of maintenance does my compost need?
In cooler climates, it is best to not disturb the pile in order to retain heat in the center. Keeping straw and other coarse materials throughout the pile will keep the material aerated without turning. As you add new material in the cooler months, simply add to the top and do not turn until the temperature warms. Especially in the cold, dry Colorado climate, keeping the pile moist is also essential to the decomposition. Make sure your pile is damp at all times, but not soggy.
Once the warmer months arrive, you should aerate your pile by turning it every few weeks with a rake. As you add in new materials during the warm temperatures, turn the pile as you add them so they are dispersed evenly. Continue to maintain moisture during this time as well.
Protect and cover the compost in order to retain moisture and heat. There needs to be some airflow, but you don’t want the compost to be totally exposed because it can dry out. If you built the compost bin from the previous post, make sure the spaces between the slats are not too large.
How do I know when my compost is ready?
The color of the material should be very dark, almost black, and should be a consistent texture and composition. When your original materials are unrecognizable, that’s when you know it is ready to use. In cooler climates where the temperature never really rises it could take up to two years to compost fully. In warmer temperatures, it can take as little as two months if aerated and composed properly.