Composting: It's Not Just a Load of Crap, Part 2
Hopefully you were able to read part 1 of this composting article, if not, you can find it by clicking here.
Microorganisms that contribute to the composting process will generate a substantial amount of heat. This is very important, as the compost needs to heat up to the point that pathogens and weed seeds are killed. To get temperatures that are high enough, be sure that your compost heap has the proper mix of ingredients and is at least one cubic yard in size (that means enough material to fill a box measuring 3' x 3' x 3'). The optimal internal temperature is between 140°F and 160°F; you should be able to find a good composting thermometer at your better nurseries.
There are Methods to this Madness!
Just as there are different styles of gardening, so too are there different styles of aerobic composting. Here are a few:
Active Composting - As previously mentioned, start with a minimum of one cubic yard of material. Soak the leaves overnight and then alternate 2” deep layers of brown and green material. Let everything sit for three days to allow the internal temperature to peak. Next, turn the pile completely, being sure to add water to any dry areas. Continue to turn every day for eleven days, then let the pile sit undisturbed for two more weeks to cure. You should wind up with a complete batch of compost ready for immediate use. (The final volume of compost will be about one third the initial volume of the pile.)
Passive Composting - This is the simplest method. Just keep "piling on" and let it sit. In several months, your pile will turn to compost from the bottom up. This requires the least amount of effort, but it also takes the longest to produce.
Of course, the difference between active and passive composting is just a matter of degrees - the bottom line is, the more you work your pile, the faster you'll see results.
In Situ Composting - Bury organic matter in a trough in your vegetable bed and cover with dirt as you go. Your material won't reach high temperatures, so be sure not to add anything that might contain weed seeds. This technique can also create a real attraction for night critters that might be inclined to dig up your beds, so you may end up settling on another method!
Worm Composting - Worms can recycle food waste into a rich, dark soil conditioner. The great advantage of this method is that it can be done indoors or outdoors, thus allowing year round composting. Worm compost is best made in a container filled with moistened bedding and redworms. Add your food waste, and the worms and micro-organisms will eventually convert the entire contents into rich compost. Worm compost is like rocket fuel for your gardens! If this appeals to you, we recommend that you pick up a copy of Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up & Maintain a Worm Composting System.
Tips & Tricks
- Use a mulching lawn mower, or purposely run an ordinary lawn mower over things you’d like to compost. A couple of passes is all you’ll need to shred the green material before adding it to your compost heap. This will greatly speed up the composting process.
- Compost piles have been known to spontaneously combust, so it's a good idea not to place them next to sheds, wooden fences or in areas near dry brush. (Just ask the Seed Lady. She made this mistake and wound up getting to know her local volunteer firemen on a first-name basis!)
- Think twice about using the composting barrels you see in feed stores and nurseries. They are expensive and generally do no better (and often much worse) than traditional composting methods. Not only that, they aren't capable of producing as much compost as you're likely to need to replenish a sizable vegetable bed.
- If you live near wooded areas, you may be able to gather organic matter that would be ideal for your compost pile. Matted leaves and decayed wood are great compost starters; be careful, however, about loading up on organics that may be too acidic. You don't want to overdo it with the pine needles, for instance, or you might tip the pH balance of the soil beyond what would be optimal for your garden. Also be careful not to gather from areas where chemicals might be present such as near roadways, drainage ditches, golf courses, public parks, ranches or farms.
- Temperature and humidity will affect your composting rate to a significant degree. By keeping your pile in an area of full sun, you'll greatly shorten the period of time it takes to produce good soil.
- Bins are great for holding your composting materials, but they can be a real pain-in-the-butt when it comes time to turn and mix the pile. If you have sufficient space, it is generally a better idea to keep your piles in an open area with easy access. Leave an empty area next to your pile, and simply shovel the heap from one side to the other on a regular basis. And be sure to situate it in an spot with good drainage - you don't want your compost sitting for long periods of time in standing water.
- Generally speaking, it takes two feet of composting material to create one inch of soil. Using this ratio, you will be able to roughly calculate your compost needs on an annual basis given the number of square feet you have under cultivation.
More Information on Composting (all books available at www.TexasReady.net)
The Edible Garden: see pages 50, 98-99
All New Square Foot Gardening: see pages 29, 80-82, 89-97, 106, 142
The Backyard Homestead: see pages 17-18, 23, 39, 61
The New Self-Sufficient Gardener: see pages 52, 56, 60, 64, 70-71, 84-86, 166
Now get out there and turn that compost pile! Happy gardening,