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Compost Manual: A complete guide to composting

Compost Manual: A complete guide to composting

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Published by: qfarms on Jun 11, 2011
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Compost Manual
.......... A complete guide to composting.Home
Compost Manual
What Is Composting?
Compost is decayed, organic plant matter. Composting is theresult of a complex feeding pattern where aerobic microbes(bacteria and fungi that thrive on oxygen) feed on organicwaste and break it down into a nutritious soil amendment. Asthe compost is mixed and aerated, these organic materialsbreak down into a rich substance the same way that plantsdecay and are recycled in any ecosystem. This in turncreates fluffy, arable soil known as humus. All organic matter breaks down into compost over time, but the decompositionprocess on its own can take quite a while. Compostingcreates a controlled environment to rapidly convert wasteinto a powerful, nutrient-rich matter that is ideal in your garden, on your lawn, or in your potted plants.Along with fuel efficiency, water conservation, and reduction in meat consumption, home composting isone of the most environmentally beneficial activities you can participate in. Yard and food waste makeup approximately thirty percent of the waste stream in the U.S. If every household participated incomposting, it would divert a significant portion of the waste stream from our landfills and water treatment facilities. If you combined composting with recycling cans, newspapers, and plastic, you couldreduce your waste flow by almost fifty percent! By composting, you are preventing our crowded landfillsfrom overflowing and giving something back to nature.Proper compost is an incredibly nutritious soil amendment, buffering the pH and retaining moisture andoxygen in the soil. It can cool the soil surface and help mitigate erosion by encouraging a vigorous rootsystem boosted by nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients. Composting helps control andsuppress plant pathogens, as well as provide food for microorganisms, which keep the soil healthy andbalanced. It improves the structure of problematic soils, breaking up heavy clay soils and retaining water better in sandy soils. Compost is chemical free—children and pets can enjoy the beautiful bounty of your organic lawn without exposure to toxins or synthetic products, making it an excellent, cheaper alternativeto commercial fertilizers.Homeowners everywhere are starting to realize how convenient and economical it is to compost wastethey would have otherwise thrown away. Why buy premium topsoil when you create your own endlesssupply for free? Home composting also serves as an invaluable educational tool, teaching children aboutconservation, the cycle of life, and the inter-connectedness of the natural world. If it gets your childthinking about science or biology, or voluntarily participating in yard work, it’s well worth the effort!
How To Compost
Composting is a dynamic process; it takes skill and the ideal conditions to aid the decompositionprocess. The good news is that decomposition naturally occurs with or without your help, so half thebattle already won. Once you understand the major factors behind composting, you can apply them toadjust your efforts and turn your compost bin, tumbler, or open pile into an efficient compostingmachine.The real trick is to get your pile to decompose as fast as you can fill it. When you neglect your compostpile, it will decompose very slowly, otherwise known as “passive composting”. Fast or “active”composting can happen much more quickly because the aerobic bacteria breakdown much faster.Passive composting involves little energy or effort, but takes much longer. Active composting, on theother hand, requires a bit more work but yields results faster. How you compost depends on your needs. If you want to produce as much compost as possible, you want to be actively managing your compost. If you are looking to get rid of yard waste, go with passive composting.
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The rate at which breakdown occurs depends on several factors: oxygenation, temperature, water content, particulate surface area, and the carbon to nitrogen ratio. If you pay attention to these things,the temperature will rise to around 130-140 degrees, ensuring rapid decomposition. Moisture iskey—your compost should feel damp, but never wet. When it’s over inoculated, it limits the oxygen thatbacteria require. The rule of thumb is that it should be as wet as a well-wrung sponge. Similarly, if your compost is too dry, bacteria cannot survive, thereby slowing down the decomposing process. If your pile doesn’t heat up, it’s possible that your compost pile is too wet, too dry, or there is not enoughprotein (greens). You can measure the temperature with a compost thermometer.Aeration is equally important, as your compost needs oxygen to decompose. Keep your compost pilebreathing by turning it by hand with a pitchfork. A compost tumbler takes out this step by aerating thecompost for you as it tumbles in the bin. Look for ones with vents on the side to keep your compostproperly aerated. If you don’t have a compost tumbler, try a metal aerator that will help take some of the work out of turning the pile.Almost all organic material works in a compost pile.You’re aiming for a good balance between carbon-richmatter (“browns”) and nitrogen-rich materials(“greens”). Brown materials are things like driedleaves, wood chips and straw, whereas greensconstituted grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Activecomposting requires finding the right mix for your compost pile. Ideally, the ratio is 25:1 (25 parts brownto 1 part green), but it can vary—too much carbon willslow the process, while too much nitrogen will causeodor. This is where owning a chipper shredder is quite handy, since you need leaves and wood chips for browns. It also may be worth it to save yard waste, because as the seasons change, it becomes harder to find what you need. Although you can compost all year long, the decomposition rate will slow downas temperatures drop. Consider stockpiling winter organics in a covered container stored outside so youcan add them to your compost bin or tumbler in the spring. Store fallen leaves from autumn in bags thatyou can use later during the spring and summer; likewise, keep grass clipping and other greens aroundduring the winter months (they can last about one to two weeks).Choosing a good composting site will help speed up the process. Start building your compost over soilor lawn instead of on a patio so you can take advantage of earthworms and microbes. Look for an areathat’s level and well-drained. If you’re adding kitchen scraps, keep it near the back door, but not so far away you’ll forget it’s there. If you live in a cooler climate, put the pile in a sunny spot so it can trap solar heat, and find it some shelter during the winter months so the decaying process doesn’t slow down. If you live in a warmer climate, keep the pile in a shadier spot so it won’t dry out. And remember to lookfor a spot that will allow you to compost unobtrusively; try to distance it from the neighbor’s yard and putup visual barriers. A compost bin will keep it contained, and is easier to manage than an open compostpile.Shredded organic materials heat up and decompose faster. The smaller the composting pieces, thefaster the pile with decay. Add new materials, remembering to layer them. Mixing distributesmicroorganisms evenly allows for faster decomposition at the same time, so that there is a morebalanced carbon to nitrogen rate, as well as better moisture and air migration. The goal is to create anactive, hot batch of compost, so the more effort you put into your pile, the more black gold you’re goingto get!After you’ve attained the right mix of browns and greens, the right amount of moisture, and the idealaeration and heat from turning, your batch of compost will be well on its way to becoming the soilamendment your plants so desperately crave. However, it would be irresponsible to give an exact timeframe for when waste becomes humus, as several factors will impact how quickly breakdown occurs.Peak seasons for composting are spring and autumn, when the atmosphere is warm and damp. Pilescreated during this time, with shredded materials that are frequently aerated, can be ready inapproximately 2-4 months. Properly tended soft waste in warm weather can take as little as 4-6 weeks.Piles prepared in the winter or late fall, created with larger or tougher pieces of waste, or leftunattended, will take longer to decay.When your compost is done, it will be approximately half of its original size. You should not be able todiscern individual items you placed in the bin. Look for a dark color, crumbly texture, and earthy smell.Slimy compost is a sign that the process was done incorrectly at some point. If you experience trouble
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with clumps or mats, organize your organic wastes into thinner layers, and use aerators or a pitchfork towork your pile.Many people think that composting is a smelly process—it’s not true! If you properly manage your compost pile, you should not be producing offensive odors. Compost should have an earthy, pleasantsmell similar to a forest floor after rain. If you do smell something suspicious, odor problems are easilyfixed, so don’t become discouraged.Soon after your compost pile is established, you should begin seeing sundry little critters throughout thepile contents. These helpers, which usually migrate from other parts of the garden or the soil beneaththe pile, can range from arthropods and flying insects to microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Don’tbe alarmed! They are all part of the soil-borne community that is critical to the decomposition process.Do not attempt to eradicate or remove these beneficial creatures, and do not use any chemicals or sprays that would normally harm them. Let them flourish and your compost will flourish with them. If possible, use rainwater from a rain barrel to moisten the pile, as chlorinated municipal water sourcescan slow down the natural rate of breakdown.For your convenience, we’ve provided a chart describing the factors that could affect your compost. Useit as a quick reference and guide:
OxygenationOxygen is required for respiration by all aerobic inhabitants within the pile.Aerobic microbes decompose waste at a faster rate than their anaerobicbrethren, and would not produce the foul odors associated with anaerobicdecomposition. Adequate ventilation and manually turning or mixing your pilewith aerators or pile turners twice a month increases its rate of decomposition. An unmixed pile may take three to four times longer beforeit breaks down. If purely manual mixing is not to your fancy, you can investin a compost tumbler that aerates by turning.TemperatureHeat is a byproduct of decomposition and accelerates the process. Theoptimum temperature for fast decomposition is between 90 and 135degrees F. Whether it is due to cold climate or insufficient bacterial activity,when the temperature falls below this, decomposition will slow, but notcease. To keep temperatures elevated, try an insulation jacket or better placement for maximizing radiant solar heat. Also choose black colored binsin cooler climate zones.Water ContentAn efficient composter needs to have a moisture content of approximately50% (it should feel like a damp towel) for microbial activity. If it is too dry,decomposition will slow down considerably, while overly wet piles cantrigger anaerobic conditions and begin to smell. Keep the pile coveredduring heavy rains, so that valuable nutrients are not washed away. Addrain water from your rain barrel when dry spells occur (chlorine in municipalwater can kill the organisms in your living system).Surface AreaMaximize this by shredding and chipping all clippings and waste into smallpieces with a chipper/shredder. The more surface area you expose for microorganisms to attack, the faster the decomposition.Carbon:NitrogenRatioOrganic materials rich in nitrogen are referred to as GREENS (fresh veggiescraps or grass clippings), while the others can be lumped together asBROWNS (hay, twigs, dried leaves). A good general rule of thumb is use2-3 parts brown to 1 part green. When initially building your pile, alwaysremember to layer, layer, layer! Alternating layers ensures proper mixing.Let’s review how to setup a composting station:Choose a moderately sunny, accessible area for your composter. If you’re using a compost bin,turn the soil in your chosen location.1.Start your green and brown layering process, beginning with a layer of small branches at thebottom that will allow for proper circulation and drainage.2.Top off your new pile with finished compost or good garden soil to ensure an introduction of bacteria to your waste.3.Aerate regularly by mixing, checking moisture content.4.Harvest the finished compost, and you’re all set to enjoy a beautiful, healthy garden!
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