Design Tip: October 15, 2009

Composting (Attractively)

Composting is easy and it doesn't have to resemble a nasty pile of waste. There is a well-known statement that "Compost Happens," meaning that all you have to do is pile the stuff up and ignore it. Natural forces in conjunction with a slew of micro and macroorganisms will take over turning organic waste into reusable amendments for the soil. This occurs in nature without the intervention of man as tons of fallen leaves, dead trees and other material are slowly decomposed and returned to the soil. It's a natural process and an example of how Mother Nature lets nothing go to waste.

However in nature, the process can take years depending upon the material, the climate and a host of other variables. Most people are not patient enough to wait for the process to take its own sweet time and in cultivated gardens where nutrients are often quickly depleted by intensive human management, the need to speed up the process makes sense. In comes the compost pile or bin.

Fundamentals of Managed Composting

Quickly turning discarded garden waste and plant food scraps into reusable compost does require a bit of knowledge and a willingness to maintain a compost pile. First, mass is important. Disgarded garden waste spread out doesn't achieve the critical mass it needs to generate heat and create an environment for the organisms required to compost quickly. Careful study indicates that a pile that is about 1-3 cubic yards (1 cu.yd. = 3'x3'x3') is large enough to generate heat, retain moisture and not be too big to permit air (oxygen) to penetrate to the center. This is why most demonstration compost piles are of this size like those shown above.

Green material versus brown material. For composting, undecomposed plant material is classified into two primary groups: green (which is high in nitrogen) and brown (which is high in carbon). It's relatively straight forward. If the plant material is predominately green such as green grass clippings, recently pulled weeds*, fresh cuttings, vegetable or fruit scraps, it is considered green material. Brown material consists of brown leaves, brown grass clippings, dead plants, woody plant parts such as branches and the like. Green materials give off extraordinary amounts of heat as they decompose. If you've ever tried to stick your hand into a pile of grass clippings after only a few days, you know what I mean. Green parts provide the nitrogen which is needed by so many organisms involved in the composting process. A successful compost pile will consist of about 1/4 to 1/3 green material with 2/3 to 3/4 being made of the brown materials.

Moist but not wet. Keep the compost pile moist but not wringing wet. This can be difficult in times with abundant rainfall (as of recently). To combat too much moisture, you may need to turn the pile more frequently. Turning compost piles every few days allows undecomposed material to be placed towards the center of the pile and allows the pile to be aerated. In the absence of air (oxygen), your compost pile will begin to undergo a process known as anaerobic decomposition, which is very smelly. A compost pile that has good oxygen penetration will undero aerobic decomposition, which should have no odor. If you turn your compost pile frequently, you will encounter a host of organisms such as worms, beetles, red wrigglers and occasionally ants. Ants can be "encouraged" to leave by frequently turning. They hate to be disturbed and will often look for a quieter neighborhood.

Location, location, location. Compost piles that are built in contact with the soil will automatically be inoculated with the necessary organisms to jump start the process. Compost "piles" that are in enclosed off-the-ground containers will need to have the organisms introduced. Don't bother purchasing the various compost starting products. Simply gather about 1-2 cups of soil from your garden or, even better, from a nearby natural area.

Compost pile no-nos. Do not put meat or dairy products into your compost pile that may attract critters. Also, do not compost cat or dog waste as these may contain harmful organisms. It is okay to use cow, horse or chicken manure but most people compost these items separately. I don't like to compost plant material that has been sprayed with any type of chemical if I'm planning to use the compost for my food garden.

*Tip: Composting weeds can introduce seeds to your compost pile. Before adding weeds to the pile, you may want to put them in black plastic bags in the hot sun for a few days. This will "cook" almost all weed seeds.

Eliminating the Unattractive Nuisance

One way to conceal your composting activities is to purchase or build any number of attractive enclosed containers. There are quite a few vendors online. Some pre-fab containers in the form of drums elevated on stands even come with handles to make turning easier. The only problem with these containers is they are somewhat small and if you need to compost a large amount of material you may need more than one. They should be water tight with an opening to add water. You must leave room in these rolling containers in order to have air to mix with your composting material or you will end up with a smelly mess.

If you don't want to go to the trouble of having a composting container, you can attempt to hide your compost area behind a shed, playhouse or in a screened area near your garbage cans. You can even plant an evergreen hedge but make sure to leave yourself enough space for easy access with a wheelbarrow.

Effective composting is best achieved if you have more than one pile or container. Create a pile or container until it reaches the proper size and then don't add any new material. Start a second or third pile rotating out the finished product and then starting anew.

Finished compost that is ready for the garden should resemble a good bag of dirt. There should be no recognizable plant parts remaining and it should a rich, chocolate brown color. You can now use it mixed into your existing soil.

Some online compost bin sources include:

Planet Natural
Gardener's Supply
Charley's Greenhouse
Gardens Alive

Please note, I have not used all of the vendors listed above.

If you have comments or questions about this article, please email me.

Unless otherwise noted, Images & Drawings Copyrighted © 2009 by Theresa Schrum - All rights reserved