Composting your organic waste can be satisfying and it’s a great resource for improving your garden soil. Compost is like a sponge in the sense that it helps store water in the soil until plants are ready to use it. It also is a great source of fertilizer that feeds your plants to encourage vigorous growth.
WHAT IS COMPOST?
Compost is the product that results from the decomposition of organic materials. This resulting compost can work as a wonderful fertilizer that helps enrich soil and helps make nutrients readily available to your plants!
Decomposition is a process that occurs when a pile of moist organic matter has adequate airflow and the correct balance of carbon and nitrogen rich materials in the presence of microbes which creates heat to break down the particles. “Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes account for most of the decomposition activity in a compost pile,” explains Dave Wilson, research agronomist at Rodale Institute.
Even in a cold, variable climate such as the one we have here in Colorado Springs, the decomposition process and microorganisms in the compost pile can actually self-generate heat if layered correctly. This is why you may see piles of compost steaming! After the decomposition phase is complete, you have a wonderful compost product that will help bring life to your soil!
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 may actually spread by the compost when you use it on your soil next year – yikes!
Food items can be a great contribution to your compost as they are relatively rich in nitrogen, which is essential for a successful decomposition. Generally, these products have a lot of beneficial nutrients that will help your soil and plants thrive!
However, be mindful that some food products can be very processed, and potentially have harmful pesticides in them that will cause a delay in decomposition and strip nutrients from your product rather than add them. Items such as banana peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, and those pesky last bites of food your children refuse to eat are all great additions to your compost!
We recommend staying clear of adding meat, fish and bones into your compost pile. They may alter the timeline of decomposition, and can create some pungent odors that your neighbors may not enjoy. That’s not to say excluding these things will rid you of these issues, but most plant-based products have a tendency to break down faster than that of an animal product. Just think of your compost pile as the ultimate vegetarian!
How should I layer my compost?
Okay, so what exactly is a compost “bin”? Typically, compost bins are structures (often wooden) that have slats that allow for airflow. Don’t just pull one of your old plastic bins that used to hold your Christmas ornaments you never put up (we all have one of those).
When you’re building your compost, be sure to keep the bottom open so that your first layer of your bin is the natural ground. For your base layer, use all of those crunchy dead leaves and grass clippings from your yard. Grass clippings are a great nitrogen source, while dry leaves are great source for carbon! From there, create your layers one on top of the next.
The ideal compost mix has layers of brown and green, or carbon and nitrogen materials. Carbon materials are things such as green leaves, straw, cardboard, wood chippings, etc. Nitrogen materials are most plants (freshly picked or mowed grass that has ideally not been sprayed with pesticides or chemical fertilizer) or manure. To simplify it, think of it as your carbon materials being brown, and nitrogen being green! Most likely you will be adding large amounts of grass and leaves in at a time, so make sure you use a pitch fork and mix it well with your other materials so that they can aerate properly.
An active compost pile has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1, and it’s important to keep that balance. Too much carbon can slow the decomposition and too much nitrogen will put off a strong odor. Make sure you are monitoring how much of each material you’re adding to your pile, and adjust amounts as needed.
What kind of maintenance does my compost need?
In cooler climates, it is best to not disturb the pile in order to retain heat. Leaving straw and other coarse materials throughout the pile will keep the material aerated without the need to turn it. As you add new material in the cooler months, keep the pile damp, but not soggy, because moisture is essential to the decomposition process. You can use a watering can or a hose to keep it damp.
In order to protect your compost and ensure it successfully decomposes, we recommend using one of those bins we mentioned earlier to contain it. This will help manage and retain both moisture and heat. The reason we encourage staying clear of your attic to get the Christmas ornaments bin is because your pile needs airflow. Having a structure that has wooden slats (for example) provides the ability for air to move in and out. Just make sure the spaces in between the slats aren’t large enough that your material spills out!
However, don’t put a lid on it, as this will increase the risk of the pile becoming anaerobic. Your next question, we’re guessing, is “what in the world does that mean?” If your compost is anaerobic, there will be too much moisture and not enough oxygen/airflow, consequently killing all the helpful microorganisms and bacteria that you were nurturing for decomposition and it’ll be real stinky. Ew.
If you want to ensure your compost is ready to use, you can check its temperature and pH. This will be a good indicator to understand whether your compost is decomposed enough to start adding to your soil. Learn how to check the pH in the link below.
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’s ready to use. Essentially, it should look like soil! In cooler climates where temperatures never really rise, it could take up to two years to compost fully. In warmer temperatures, it can take as little as two months if aerated and composted properly.
Composting is a great way to make natural fertilizer for your garden. The sooner you start your compost bin and collect organic material, the quicker you will have compost to amend your soils and create a beautiful and thriving garden. Learn how to put your compost to use and create an edible garden this year.