A healthy vibrant garden requires organic nutrients like carbon and nitrogen. Compost is a natural recycling technique used by organic gardeners to put nutrients back into depleted soil. It can be made at home by reusing leftover scraps from the kitchen and organic matter from the yard. Check out our article on the benefits of compost for your garden.
Making compost is like baking a cake or making soup. When you make it the first time or two, you use a recipe. The recipe contains a list of ingredients and an explanation of how to combine them. If an ingredient is missing or isn't added according to the recipe the cake or soup might fail.
This also applies to compost, there is a recipe. There are specific ingredients that require specific measurements. Furthermore, like your cake recipe the ingredients must be combined in a certain way for the recipe to succeed.
Below is a recipe for two different types of compost piles. One is high maintenance and will produce compost quickly in four to six weeks. The other is a low maintenance recipe and who knows when you will have compost. It could be one month, two months or even a year before you have usable compost.
Spring and fall are great times to start composting as there are plenty of ingredients available from your own garden and kitchen waste. So clean up the yard, follow the recipe below and start composting!
Note: You will need nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) at a ratio of one part (N)itrogen to three parts (C)arbon.
(N)itrogen (one part) components consist of:
- Stable scraps like horse manure, rabbit, pig, goat and chicken manure
- Fish meal
- Blood meal
- Cottonseed meal
- Legumes such as alfalfa and pea clover
- Green garden waste like weeds
- Algae and sea weed
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Lake moss
- Kitchen vegetable scraps
- Grass clippings without chemical fertilizers from the first two or three weeks of spring when they are lush and tender (at this time they are high in nitrogen but afterward they go into the carbon category)
(C)arbon (three parts) components consists of:
- Dried leaves
- Sawdust in small amounts, (as long as it hasn't been treated with chemicals)
- Untreated wood chips in small amounts
- Shredded newspaper
- Dryer lint
- Corn stalks and corn cob
- Shredded brown paper grocery bags
- Pine needles and pine cones
- Oak leaves
- Egg shells
Water - You will need just enough water for the pile to be moist, not wet.
What NOT to add to a compost pile:
Ashes from coal or charcoal, cat litter or droppings, dog waste, fish scraps, ashes from untreated wood, meat, fat, grease, oils, bones, milk, cheese, yogurt, potatoes, sawdust and wood shavings from chemically treated wood.
Recipe for a high maintenance compost pile:
If you want compost quickly and you aren't afraid of a few quick chores then this recipe is for you.
Compost can be made in a pile in the back yard or a bin according to the compost chef's preferences. Keep in mind that if you mix your compost in a pile, it needs to be protected from varmints. You can easily do this by surrounding the pile with chicken wire or by building a wood enclosure. Make sure that any large ingredients, like paper bags or garden waste, are broken down into small pieces so that they will quickly decompose.
For maximum production of your compost pile, combine all of your ingredients at once. Don't keep adding ingredients to the bin. Every time a new ingredient is added to the pile, the decomposition process starts over. That's why it is a good idea to have two piles going at the same time. Use one pile to collect the ingredients and a second pile that is engaged in the composting process.
To build your compost pile, first put a pile of twigs and sticks at the bottom so your pile will circulate air and breathe. Next, layer the (C)arbon and (N)itrogen ingredients on top of the twigs, starting with the (C)arbon ingredients. Continue with the (N)itrogen and then the (C)arbon, next the (N)itrogen and finishing with the (C)arbon.
Next add water. Add just enough so that the ingredients feel like a damp sponge that has been wrung out. To test for dampness pick up a handful of the ingredients and wring them out. If a few drops of water come out, it's perfect. However if a stream of water comes out, your pile is too wet. If the pile is too wet, add more dry ingredients and let the pile dry out. To help the pile quickly dry while keeping it oxygenated, turn it often using a shovel or a pitch fork, about once every day or two.
If you mixed one part (N)itrogen with three parts (C)arbon and your compost pile is damp like a wrung out sponge, it should heat to a temperature between 104°-160°, even in cold northern climates. Stir the pile about every four to seven days. Mix thoroughly. Stirring will move the cold ingredients into the warm center of the pile. Stirring replenishes foods and oxygen for the microorganisms that are hard at work breaking down the ingredients. Heat helps the ingredients quickly decompose and keeps the pile operating at its peak. Moreover, at 131° most disease causing pathogens die as well as pests, seeds and weeds.
You will know when your compost is finished when it smells earthy, contains small uniform particles and the color resembles dark brown soil and is light and fluffy.
Recipe for low maintenance compost:
If you don't care how long it takes to make compost, one month, six months, or even one year and you don't have time for weekly chores, then this recipe is for you.
Follow the above recipe. The exception, the ingredients of this low maintenance pile do not need to be combined at the same time. You can start your pile with a few ingredients and add ingredients as they become available. Furthermore, you don't need to stir this pile as often, just when you think of it. In this low maintenance recipe, do not add weeds or diseased plants because the compost won't get hot enough to destroy pathogens.
List of handy tools:
For additional information on composting see Composting. The Organic Gardeners' Secret Solution.
Good luck and have fun!
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