It's easy to make compost. Nature does it all the time. But, when unaided by you, nature takes a long time. Follow the tips below to learn how to speed up the process.
For something so valuable to your plants (the "humus" resulting from the composting process is sometimes termed "black gold"), it is surprisingly simple to make compost. The basic idea is to stack compostable materials in layers in some sort of container, then keep the pile adequately watered. The right mix of materials and the correct amount of watering will put microorganisms to work for you, to break down the pile. Turn the pile occasionally with a pitchfork (see below). The pile will heat up, and the materials will decompose.
How to Make Compost: Containers
The container (compost bin) doesn't have to be fancy (although a tumbler model saves you from turning a pile with a pitchfork). The purpose of the container is mainly to make it easier for you to keep the composting materials nestled together and to keep excessive rain off of them (ongoing, heavy rains over a sufficiently long period of time would leach nutrients out of the pile).
When not properly stacked and maintained in a pile , the materials, although they will eventually break down, will take much longer to do so. The mass of a properly formed pile is critical to fast decomposition. The materials just don't "cook" as well if not massed together so as to form a pile of at least 3' x 3' x 3' (I make mine a little bigger).
Homemade compost containers can be built in all sorts of different ways. I've seen chicken-wire fencing, cinder blocks or pallets, for example, used to make compost containers.
How to Make Compost: the Materials Needed and Layering Them
What materials can you put in a compost pile? I discuss examples in my article on making compost in recycling projects. Obviously, only biodegradable items qualify as compostable materials. But not all biodegradable items are suitable for the average homeowner's pile, including cat poop.
You can make compost the ultra-serious way, or you can make compost in a more casual way. I'll assume most of you will take the latter approach. But you may be interested to know that those who are ultra-serious speak of something called a "carbon-nitrogen ratio." 30:1 has sometimes been deemed the ideal ratio of carbon to nitrogen.
But it's a lot of trouble to try to get an exact ratio. Frankly, most of us wouldn't even know how to measure such a thing with any degree of exactitude.
So let's simplify the matter. Basically, you'll be building your pile in layers, as you would a lasagna. Alternate "brown" and "green" materials. The brown materials are the carbonaceous ones and are tougher to break down. Examples are:
- Leaves raked in fall (best to shred them with a lawn mower or wood chipper)
- Some newspaper
- Wood ashes
The green materials are the nitrogenous ones; they break down fast and heat up the pile. Examples are:
- Clover and grass clippings left behind after mowing
- Potato peelings and similar kitchen scraps
- Coffee grounds
Experiment with the proportions. Rather than seeking that exact 30:1 ratio in a rigorous, scientific way, you'll probably discover what works best over the course of time by observing how well or poorly different mixes decompose.
Maintaining the Pile of Materials in Your Container
Once your layers are in place, the microorganisms do most of the rest of the work (worms help, too!). You need to help them out by occasionally watering the pile. There's a delicate balance to find between letting the materials dry out and making them soggy. You don't want either of those extremes.
Since we're talking about aerobic composting here (as opposed to anaerobic composting), you can help out the microorganisms by turning the pile occasionally with a pitchfork, to keep the pile well-aerated. Turning also promotes uniform decomposition. The center of the pile is where the action (heat) is. The idea behind turning the pile is to move some of the material around the periphery into the center, so as to give it equal time to "cook."