Urban Composting and Compost Use

Leslie Cooperband University of Wisconsin Department of Soil Science

General Definition of Composting
Transformation of raw organic materials into biologically-stable, humus-rich substances suitable for growing plants.

The Composting Process
Organic Matter Minerals Water Microorganisms

Heat CO2

Compost Pile

Organic matter, minerals, water, microbes

Raw Materials O2

Finished compost

Three most important factors for making good compost are:
1) chemical makeup of raw ingredients or feedstocks 2) physical size and shape of feedstocks and porosity of the pile 3) population of organisms involved in composting process

Composting is a BIOLOGICAL process: Take the microbes’ point of view when setting up conditions for efficient composting

Microbes break down organic compounds to:
• Obtain energy to carry on life processes • Acquire nutrients (N, P, K) to sustain populations

Compost “Happens”
• Aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically when organic materials are mixed and piled together • Aerobic composting is most efficient and least offensive form of decomposition • Heat generated is by-product of microbial break down of organic matter

Temperature Changes in an Aerobic Compost Pile

Temperature oF

140 120 100 90 70 50

A=mesophilic B=thermophilic C=mesophilic D-maturation Active Phase Curing Phase


B Time



Microbial Food Quality

Carbon compounds
• • • • • • carbohydrates cellulose hemicellulose chitin lignin fats, oils

Ease with which compounds are broken down: carbohydrates > hemicellulose > fats/oils > cellulose = chitin > lignin

Fruit, vegetable wastes easily degraded because contain mostly sugars and starches Leaves, stems, nut shells, bark, tree trunks more difficult because contain cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin

• Amino Acids • Proteins • Sources include:
– green plant tissue (grass clippings, green leaves & stems, fruits, vegetables) – animal wastes (meat, feathers, hair, hides, blood, intestinal matter, urine, fecal matter).

Index of Feedstock quality: Carbon:Nitrogen (C:N) Ratio
• Supply of total carbon relative to total nitrogen • If amount of C relative to N is too high, slows composting process • If C:N ratio is too low, more likely to lose N as ammonia gas (bad odor)

Rules of thumb:
Green materials have lower C:N ratios than woody materials or dead leaves. Animal wastes more N rich than plant wastes. Combine high C:N materials with low C:N materials in ratios of 2-3:1

Feedstock C:N Ratios
Materials High in Carbon Fall leaves Straw Wood chips or sawdust Bark Mixed paper Newspaper or cardboard Materials High in Nitrogen Vegetable wastes Coffee grounds Grass clippings Manure C:N Ratio 30-80 40-100 100-500 100-130 150-200 560 C:N Ratio 15-20 20 15-25 5-25

Environmental Conditions Affecting Composting

Oxygen content
• Since most efficient composting is aerobic, need O2. • Atmospheric O2 concentration: 21%. • O2 levels in compost air shouldn’t go < ~5% for aerobic composting; 10% optimal. • As pile heats up, more O2 will be consumed. • Can estimate O2 status of pile with your nose.

Rapidly degrading substrates: produce foul odors
• Include grass clippings, food processing wastes. • Usually have low C:N ratios, high available C compounds, high moisture, small particle size. • Consume O2 faster than it can be replenished. • Need to blend with dry, high C feedstocks immediately

Moisture content
• Optimal range 45-60% by weight. • Low moisture impedes composting process because – microbes need water – Dry pile will become cool, slows down composting

Moisture cont’d
• Moisture content > 60% means pore spaces filled with water rather than air. anaerobic conditions, • Insufficient O2 hot pile cools down. • Dry, high-carbon feedstocks often used as bulking (drying) agents with wet feedstocks. • Perform “squeeze test” to estimate moisture content.

• Higher temperatures result in faster breakdown of organic materials. • Excessively high temperatures (> 170 oF) can inhibit microbial activity. • Moisture moderates wide swings in temperature. • Estimate compost pile temperature using your hand or a long-stem thermometer.

Particle size
• Particle size regulates microbial access to food. • Smaller particles have more surface area than large particles; easy access. • HOWEVER, v. fine particles produce small pores; restricted air flow could lead to anaerobic conditions. • Wood chips create porosity, but carbon isn’t available to microbes.

Adapted from T. Richard

Porosity effects on aeration

Loosely packed, well structured

Loosely packed, uniform particle size

Tightly packed, uniform particle size

Tightly packed, mixed particle sizes

Pile Size/Shape
• Pile size will affect O2 content and temperature.
– Small piles maintain higher internal O2 concentrations than large piles. – BUT, if piles too small, won’t retain heat. – Large piles retain higher temperatures than small piles. – BUT, if piles to high, won’t aerate properly.

Air Flow and Pile Size

No O2

Adequate O2

Feed the microbes and let them do the work for you!

Examples of composting technologies

Simplest technologies are composting bins or backyard piles

Passively aerated static piles using PVC pipes

Using PVC pipes inserted diagonally into compost piles promotes convective air flow

Making and turning compost windrows with a tractor-pulled windrow turner


Vermicomposting or Worm Composting
• Using worms that are natural “eaters” of organic material (red wigglers most common) • Requires high moisture, moderate temperatures (40-80 oF) • Best to feed worms pre-ground food waste including vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells

How to Maintain Compost Worms
• Construct a shallow bin (either plastic or wood—wood “breathes” better) • Recommended sizing: 1 ft2 per lb. of food waste/week • 1 lb. worms for food waste from household of 3 people (1 ft. X 2 ft. X 2 ft. size bin) • Add bedding for worms-shredded paper, leaves, peat moss • Add food waste every few days or 1X/week • Add new bedding if compost gets too wet

How to Harvest Worm Compost
• Segregate old material to one side of bin; add new bedding and food scraps; worms will migrate to new food source. • Dump compost out of bin and put light on compost pile; worms will move away from light; collect them at bottom of pile. • Remove contents of bin; place new bedding + food waste in bottom and cover with burlap; put finished compost on top of burlap; worms will migrate into new material below burlap.

Compost Use in Urban Soils

Characteristics of Urban Soils
• • • • • • Highly disturbed Common to plant in subsoil Topsoil imported from somewhere else Subject to compaction, erosion Subject to over fertilization Subject to flooding/poor aeration

Disturbed, degraded soils no longer perform important “ecosystem functions”
•Infiltration •Water retention •Absorption of nutrients •Degradation of pesticides, pollutants •Stabilizing soil temperatures

Soil Management

Soil Function

Healthy plants, ecosystem

Use of organic amendments builds soil organic matter and improves soil functions.

Approximate Amount of Organic Amendment Needed to Raise SOM by 2%
Soil type Clay Loam Loam Sandy Loam Sand Cubic Yards* 9.5 11.0 12.5 15.0 Tons* 4.0 4.5 5.0 6.0 Tons (T/acre) 35 39 44 52

*Amount needed for 5000 ft.2 area and 6" depth. Assuming amendment is 60% organic matter with bulk density of 800 lb./cubic yard and 30% moisture content. (Source: Darrah, 1994)

Comparing mineral fertilizers and composts
Material Advantages Disadvantages

Mineral 1. Convenient 1. Easily leached Fertilizers 2. Transport and handling 2. Continuous use may costs are lower lead to breakdown of soil 3. Quick crop response structure 3. Supply major nutrients only Composts 1. Improve soil structure 2. Controls erosion 3. Supplies wide range of nutrients 4. Hygienic disposal of pathogenic waste 1. Dilute nutrient source 2. High transport costs 3. May be difficult to apply evenly 4. High C:N ratios may rob soil N

Landscape uses of Composts
• • • • Turf grass establishment Bed preparation Backfill for trees Mulch

Compost Use for Ornamental Shrubs and Trees
• Use stable compost if planting immediately. • Check soluble salts of compost if planting salt-sensitive plants (dogwoods, some conifers). • Young seedlings, liners, bare root plants more susceptible to salts, ammonia and other phytotoxic compounds, so have compost analyzed for these if concerned.

Compost Use in Planting Bed Establishment
• Application rates recommended: 1-2” layer or 3-6 cu yds. /1000 ft2 • Incorporate to depth of 6-8” • Test compost amended soil for pH and soluble salts (sol. salts shouldn’t exceed 1.25 ds/m for salt sensitive crops like geranium)

Turf Establishment
• Use mature compost, low soluble salts, 1” particle size or finer. • Apply 1-2” (3-6 yd3 per 1000 ft2) evenly with spreader and incorporate to depth of 5-7” (2030% inclusion rate). • Nutrient-rich compost (e.g., biosolids or manure-based) may eliminate need for fertilizers. • If applying to degraded soil, use 3-4” layer of compost.

Compost Use as Backfill Mix
• Helps promote rapid root growth • Juvenile plants may benefit more from compost-amended backfill than mature plants • May reduce soil-borne disease incidence • N-rich composts preferred • Inclusion rate of 25-35% blended with native soil

Compost Use for Rehabilitating Degraded Soils
• Inclusion rates as low as 4-17% have been beneficial in rejuvenating marginal soils, especially with fertilizers • In high pH soils (>7.0), if composts have high ammonia levels, delay seeding or planting by at least 2 weeks

Compost Use for Erosion Control
• Compost applied as a surface mulch • Does not have to be biologically stable if won’t seed right away • Apply even rate of 3-4” layer (400-550 cu yd./acre) • Can blow compost onto soil surface if applying to steep area

Mulch Vs. Compost
• Soil surface cover of raw or partially decomposed bark, wood • Controls weeds • Moderates soil temperatures • Reduces erosion • Retains soil moisture by retarding evaporation • Particle size 1/2” to 2” • Should not be incorporated into the soil

• Product of controlled biological decomposition. • Humus-like substance, stable biologically • Can be incorporated or surface applied • Particle size 1/2” or less • Can be used as a mulch but mulch cannot be used as compost.

• Compost use can improve topsoil quality and improve urban plant growth • Compost can increase soil water infiltration and retention; reduces erosion and runoff • Test composts BEFORE use if concerned • Application rates, timing depend on compost type, maturity and plant species

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