THE COMPOSTING PROCESSCompost Organisms
Most composting organisms fall into two generalgroups: microorganisms and invertebrates. Among themicroorganisms, aerobic bacteria are the most impor-tant in terms of initiating decomposition and heat gen-eration.Bacteria are one-celled colorless organisms that can-not make their own food through photosynthesis. They reproduce by splitting, producing billions of offspringover a relatively short time, although the life span of any particular generation may be only 20–30 minutes. As agroup, they can eat almost any type of organic matter,although specific bacterial populations will differ frompile to pile depending upon the makeup of the pile andthe decomposition stage.
bacteria are active when a pile is firstmade, especially in the fall when the weather is cool.Optimum activity occurs at about 55
F, but these bac-teria are still active at 0
F. The bacterial activity createsheat and sets the stage for the most efficient decompos-ers, the
bacteria, which are most active whenthe temperature of the pile is at 70–100
F.Rapid decomposition of the pile by mesophilic bacte-ria creates heat. As the temperature of the pile increases,
bacteria take over from 113
F to 155
F andhigher. Most weed seed and organisms causing plantdiseases are killed at these temperatures. Unless turnedand fed new material, thermophilic bacteria will decom-pose material rapidly, peaking in 2–3 days. The pile willthen return to the lower temperature range where meso-philic bacteria are active.Other important microorganisms in the compostingprocess include
. Similar to bacte-ria and fungi, actinomycetes give the compost pile itsfaintly earthy odor. At the end of the composting process,they may appear as a blue-gray to light green powdery orcobweb-like layer in the outer 4–6 in. of compost. Fungigenerally intermingle with the actinomycetes.When the inner pile starts to heat up, most inverte-brates are killed or migrate to cooler areas of the pile. Inthe cooler areas, nematodes prey upon bacteria, protozoaand fungal spores. Larger mites and springtails also feedon fungi. The life cycle within the pile continues to be-come more complex as predaceous mites and pseudoscor-pions feed on other mites as well as nematodes. Complexinvertebrates like centipedes and ground beetles feed onlower life forms, and decaying plant life in the pile at-tracts sowbugs, snails, slugs and earthworms.
A compost pile that heats up properly and decomposesrapidly depends on a number of environmental factorswithin the pile. One of the most critical factors is thebalance of nitrogen and carbon within the plant andanimal wastes added to the pile.Although a number of nutrient ratios, such as nitro-gen to phosphorous, are important in the compostingprocess, the most critical is the carbon:nitrogen ratio,commonly expressed as “C:N” or “C/N” ratio. Microor-ganisms require carbon for energy, while they need ni-trogen for protein synthesis. Decomposition within thecompost pile is optimal when the C:N ratio is about30:1. Excess nitrogen in the pile results in the produc-tion of ammonia when there is not enough carbon inthe pile for microorganisms to synthesize new cellularmaterial. When there is not enough nitrogen to produceproteins for microorganism growth, the compostingprocess slows.While most organic materials in the pile vary in theircarbon:nitrogen ratios, they must be balanced to pro-duce the ideal of 30:1. Most dry or woody materials arehigh in carbon, while green wastes or livestock manuresare relatively low (table 1). Because plant materials vary in C:N ratios due to water content and growth stage,tables of C:N ratios can be used only as guides in mix-ing materials. Thus, composting is as much an art as itis a science.
Surface area effects
Decomposition within the pile can be aided by increas-ing the surface area of organic material added to thepile. As microbial activity occurs mostly on the surfaceof waste added to the pile, increasing the surface areawill increase the number of microorganisms working onthe material.One of the most efficient ways to increase the surfacearea of organic waste is to run it through a mechanicalshredder or chipper. Shredders and chippers can be largeor small, run by electricity, gas or by hand. Fall leaves
Table 1. Carbon:nitrogen ratios for selected organicwastes (by weight).
Material C:N Ratio
Low C:N materialsGrass clippings 12–15:1Food scraps 15:1Vegetable wastes 11–20:1Coffee grounds 20:1Cow manure 18–20:1Horse manure 25:1Poultry manure 15:1High C:N materialsLeaves 30–80:1Straw 40–100:1Corn stalks 60:1Paper 170–200:1Sawdust 200–500:1