All organic gardeners know how vital a good organic compost is to their organic gardening methods. In fact, creating a healthy rich organic compost is one of the most important things you can do to create a vital, healthy garden. The act of tossing all your garden waste into a pile to decay down to compost might seem easy, but there is a lot more to high-quality compost than simply creating a pile to toss your waste in. Considerations must be made on how to create the optimal decomposition process that not only yields a rich dark compost, but also provides a product that is free of disease, pests, and weeds.
Organic composting, when done correctly, provides you with a way to avoid using chemicals on your garden. Just as importantly it also provides a vital source of nutrients and a friendly environment for beneficial organisms. Organic compost and these organisms are a key part of restoring the structure of your soil as well. All these things together help provide the optimal growing conditions for an organic garden.
Organic Composting Basics
Compost is nothing more than organic materials that have decomposed, leaving a decayed matter referred to as humus. When referring to organic materials, think of anything that rots or decays quickly, such as grass cuttings, fruits or vegetables, or grains such as rice. Organic compost is applied directly on your garden as a fertilizer or can be made into a compost tea. An alternative way of composting, called vermiculture, uses worms to do the composting.
Vital to the process of decomposition and one of the reasons why compost is so important for your garden, are all the beneficial organisms needed for the decomposition process. Bacteria, fungi, and worms just to name a few, break down the organic matter, but even more important, they become a part of your garden. So not only do you have nutrient-rich organic compost to add to your garden, but you have the beginnings of a healthy ecosystem. This ecosystem that includes soil structure, beneficial organisms, and nutrients is how plants can thrive without chemicals.
The importance of Organic Compost
For decades there was a trend towards using chemical fertilizers to feed plants, and pesticides to kill pests that damage the plants. It only took a while for farmers to realize that these products did more harm than good. When you use pesticides, they not only kill off the bad organisms, they also kill off beneficial organisms which feed off them. This creates an imbalance that results in pests returning and this time they have no competition. Their numbers and the damage that they create are greater than before the use of pesticides.
This is why production farmers must continuously spray crops in an effort to keep damaging organisms at bay. Synthetic fertilizers also harm beneficial organisms and as a result, it compromises soil balance and health. The more farmers must spray, the unhealthier the eco-system becomes, and the more chemicals in your food.
Organic compost provides a solution for this. By adding compost to your garden, you are effectively reintroducing the beneficial organisms. In doing so, pests and diseases find a much more difficult environment to thrive in.
In addition to helping to restore the natural balance to your garden, compost also:
- Produces healthier plants- Slow-release nutrients continue to help your plants grow.
- Saves you money – You are using waste rather than having to buy expensive fertilizers.
- Reduces global waste by recycling.
- Conserves water – Organic compost helps soil hold water better, which is also good for your plants!
- Can help condition clay heavy soil or help sandy soil hold more moisture.
- Reduces weeds when used as a mulch.
- Helps control soil erosion.
- Moderates soil temperature, which is an important consideration if you live in cooler climates.
The Science Behind Composting
You may be one of those curious people who want to know why things work the way they do. Even if you are not interested in the science behind composting, there are a few important facts you will need to know. Creating a high-quality organic compost depends on understanding how the process works.
There are four main components in the composting process: organic matter, oxygen, moisture, and bacteria. These things will all need to be present in proper amounts for proper decomposition.
Organic matter is one of two categories, brown (carbon) and green(nitrogen). Carbon is an important energy source for beneficial bacteria to do their work. It is also a building block for microbial cells. On the other hand, nitrogen contains essential nutrients for cell growth and function.
One of the most important parts of creating good organic compost is understanding the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio. Experts disagree with the proper ratio of carbon to nitrogen, but the Illinois Extension recommends a 1:1 ratio. Other experts recommend a 3:1 ratio. Most important is you cannot throw all your grass clippings in with no brown matter and expect it to compost.
Oxygen is also critical to the composting process. To be able to oxidize carbon for energy, microorganisms need oxygen. Microorganisms continuously use oxygen and carbon dioxide is the byproduct. This is why it is so important to turn your compost or use a tool designed to make holes in the compost which allows more oxygen in. A stinking smell from your compost is one sign that it may not be getting enough oxygen.
Decomposition also requires moisture. While you do not want it soaking wet you should aim for damp, like a wrung-out sponge. Make sure to add water during dry seasons, a compost pile that is too dry will decompose very slow. If your pile gets too wet, find some dry brown organic material you can add to it.
At the very core of your compost is the bacteria. Without them, you cannot have organic composting. In most cases, bacteria will be present in the organic materials you have added to your organic compost. The more microorganisms present the faster that your compost will break down. If you are concerned about how quickly your organic compost is breaking down, check oxygen and moisture first. If you have good ratios of brown to green, then consider adding some garden soil or finished compost to the mix. This will introduce more beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that can help finish the job.
Why Not Just Buy Compost?
It could be assumed that if you are reading about composting that you do not want to buy organic compost for whatever reason. However, after reading this article you might think it would be easier to do so. While it is true that you could find a source of organic compost, there are many good reasons to not do so:
- Cost – After initial outlay (if any) organic compost is free to make, provided you have a good supply of organic matter.
- Satisfaction– Making your own organic fertilizer and using it to improve your soil and plants brings a sense of satisfaction!
- Contamination – There have been numerous issues with commercial compost becoming contaminated or not being made from organic materials.
- Microbial Content – Some commercial sources sterilize their compost; this means that it may have little to no microorganisms in it.
The same goes for community composting programs and neighborhood sources. There is no way to control what goes in it, if there is any contamination, or whether the microorganisms are present. If you do decide to buy organic compost, make sure it comes from a trusted source! Not doing so could introduce additional diseases, pests, or weeds into your garden!
What You Will Need for Organic Composting
Overall there are not a lot of special tools or equipment that you need to compost. A garden fork and a place to put your compost are really the only things you need. However, it is a good idea to build or buy a container for your organic compost. There are a few reasons for this. A container keeps compost secure from rodents and it keeps it out of sight. Also having a properly built container will allow air to flow making it easier for oxygen to reach your pile. The only other thing that you really need is a simple garden fork to turn compost and a hose for watering. That said, there are different tools for different needs and wants.
Containing Your Organic Compost
You can do a compost pile, but as already mentioned, piles can be unsightly and attract unwanted visitors. Piles also require a bit more maintenance and tend to spread. There are several options available for containing your organic compost:
- Stationary Bin- Either homemade or purchased, this is the most common way to house organic compost. This structure is stationary, sitting in one place in your yard. Bins are made from wood, chicken wire, heavy-duty plastic premade, or cinder blocks. You can find these types of bins in single, double or triple compartments. The advantage of additional bins is being able to have compost in many stages of decomposition.
- Move-able Bins – IF you have any reason to move your compost pile, these may be your best option. They also make it easier to turn your pile, because they do not have a bottom and can be lifted off a compost pile. Usually made of wire these can either be made or purchased.
- Tumblers – If you live in town, have a small garden, or not a lot of time, these bins do offer some advantages. Tumblers have some way to rotate them rather than having to turn the compost pile. The disadvantage to these is they are small and expensive and may not be suitable for larger gardens.
- Trash Can – If you are on a budget, you can make a discreet portable compost bin with a trash can. Simply drill 24 holes approximately ¼ inch in the bottom of the trash can and partially bury the trash can. The holes let the microorganisms in, but you can still move the trash can if you really need to.
- Home Made Units – You can use wire, pallets, or cinder blocks to make a simple holding unit. These types of bins are very easy to make and low cost. You only need to make sure there is plenty of airflow into the pile.
A final note about bins and piles. Make sure that your organic compost pile is not too big or too small. Size can have an effect on temperature and moisture and could slow the decomposition process. An ideal size for organic compost is between 3 feet on all sides and 5 feet.
Tools for Organic Composting
The cost of starting a compost pile is minimal, but there are a few tools that can make the work a bit easier and more efficient.
A garden fork is the best tool for turning your organic compost. The tines work to keep the compost from compacting such as might happen using a spade. Make sure to find one that fits your hands and size, it will make the work of hand turning so much easier.
Hand turning can be hard work especially if your pile is large, or your bin is very small. A compost aerator can take some of the back-breaking work out of keep on top of your organic compost pile. Made specifically for this purpose, these tools create an air shaft in the compost pile. This increases decomposition and reduces the amount of turning you need to do.
When adding some brown organic matter to organic compost you always want to make sure to cut it into small pieces. This is because it composts slower. Cutting it smaller increases surface spaces on which microorganisms feed. This will speed the decomposition process. If you want to add things like twigs or small branches a good pair of pruning shears will be a necessity.
A thermometer allows you to keep track of the temperature in your compost. Making sure your organic compost is warm enough helps to kill pathogens, bad microorganisms, and weed seeds. A temperature of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal. Do not let your pile go over 170 degrees.
Most experts say that adding starters to organic compost is unnecessary because your compost pile should have everything that it needs to decompose properly. But there are additives that claim to speed up the process. If you choose to go this route, make sure to look for organic starters from your gardening center.
Types of Composting
There are many different ways to come up with beautiful humus to feed your plants. There is no wrong way, how you choose to accomplish it, will depend on preference as well as where you live and your garden. If you have a lot of waste, you may even decide to try several methods to increase your output. For instance, some people will make an organic compost or rich vermicompost and make a compost tea from it.
Anaerobic vs Aerobic Composting
Before we discuss different types of organic composting, it is important to understand the difference between anaerobic and aerobic compost. Anaerobic composting is composting with little or no oxygen present. An example of this would be building a compost pile and never turning it. An anaerobic compost pile contains different microorganisms which produce compounds such as methane. This is why a pile that does not have enough oxygen will smell bad.
Anaerobic composting also called low temperature or cold composting is not recommended in most cases because it leaves pathogens and weed seeds intact. In use for centuries around the world, it is still in use, especially in areas where it is very dry. The most common anaerobic composting methods are heap and pit composting. This type of composting takes a long time, up to three years for a finished product.
Aerobic Composting is the primary organic composting method discussed in this article. Turning compost allows oxygen to the microbes. These microbes, in turn, produce carbon dioxide, water, and humus. A properly done aerobic compost pile never smells and has few if any weed seeds or pathogens. Most modern-day organic composting is done aerobically as it is generally a safer, more high-quality product.
Traditional Compost Heap
This is the easiest and cheapest organic composting method. The most difficult part of this process is finding a spot in your yard to keep it because these heaps tend to get quite large. You can choose to make an anaerobic pile and just continue to put compost into the heap. This is by far the easiest, but as stated earlier, does come with several drawbacks. For an aerobic pile, simply layer the pile with alternating layers of carbon to nitrogen and keep the compost heap aerated and watered. Try to keep your heap from getting too large in diameter and never let it get any higher than five feet.
3 Bin Composting
The three-bin composting method offers a distinct advantage for those who have a lot of organic matter. Using three bins allows you to have compost in three different stages of decomposition. Unlike the compost heap where you might be adding compost continuously to the same heap, you can continuously create new piles. Some gardeners will use the first bin to store materials, others will start their organic compost in it. Once the ingredients are well on their way to decomposing, transfer to the second bin. Here your organic compost can finish the process of decomposition. The third bin is then for curing and storing your finished humus and is ready to put on your garden. The three-bin method offers you a way to have a continuous source of organic compost to work with.
Trench or Pit Composting
This method is good for someone who does not want a compost heap but still wants to recycle garden and kitchen waste cheaply. When trench or pit composting, you dig a trench or hole, approximately one to three feet deep. Place your scraps in the hole and layer it with garden soil. Continue to layer until it full and then just leave it. After about six months to a year you can either plant over it or you can harvest the organic compost to use on the garden. This method starts out aerobic and after about a week becomes anaerobic.
Organic composting with worms, vermicomposting provides rich, dark humus your plants will love. There is a small investment in purchasing worms and setting up a bin, but little to no outlay later. You will need red wiggler worms, which can be purchased at some garden stores and online. Others worms from your garden will not work. Bins can be as simple as a couple of tubs, or you can make and set up a large bin in a basement. Worms need to stay warm, between 55-77 degrees, so you must have a warm place with no direct sunlight to keep them.
Keep your worms fed with food scraps, paper, and yard trimmings. The worms break down the organic matter and turn it into worm castings which is the byproduct you use on your garden. Some gardeners will then turn the castings into worm tea, which is a nutrient rich liquid you can use on houseplants or gardens.
Organic Compost tea
Compost tea is not a way of organic composting rather a by-product of compost. The advantages of compost tea are many. Use it to add nutrients and microorganisms to the soil at the roots of your plant and well as foliar feeding. The liquid form makes it more available to the plant, and the rich mix of microorganisms help to protect plants from disease as well as build the soil.
Make organic compost tea by soaking tea in water, while aerating it with an aquarium pump and bubblers. The tea brews for a few days and applied directly to the plant and the soil around it. Rich in nutrients, it makes an exceptional fertilizer for any plants potted or in the garden.
Keeping your Compost Organic
You cannot make the assumption that your compost is organic just because you made it at home. You must be mindful of everything that goes into your organic compost. In the same way that compost purchased at your local garden center may contain chemicals, you can inadvertently introduce chemicals into your organic compost. Those chemicals can harm the microorganisms that you want to introduce to your garden, kill your plants or introduce chemicals to your otherwise organic produce. This is especially true if you are a small organic farmer hoping to sell your harvest. Here are a few tips to make sure that does not happen:
- Know your sources – Make sure that if you get materials elsewhere that you know that they are organic.
- Use only untreated grass clippings or yard waste
- Make sure your kitchen waste is organic
- If you plan to use manure, use it from your own animals or carefully research where it comes from.
- Straw and hay can become contaminated by weed killer, so it is important to know who you are getting it from.
- Do not use treated lumber if you make your own bin.
- Don’t accept any materials from anyone else, including neighbors, unless you are certain they are organic.
Of particular concern is the herbicide known as Milestone as well as related herbicides in the pyralids family. It is often in use on pastures where livestock is grazing. The herbicide is present in the manure and when composted can transfer to your garden. It can kill several crops including carrots, lettuce, potatoes, and legumes. If your goal is organic gardening this should extend to your compost as well. Careful vetting of any material that goes into making your compost, will ensure it is organic.
How to Make Organic Compost
Creating a spot for your Compost
As you get ready to start your organic compost you will want to have first considered what type of composting you will do and what type of container you want. Equally as important is finding a place to put your compost. Once you have done that, it is time to choose a spot for your organic compost. Consider whether your pile will be aerobic or anaerobic since an open anaerobic pile will smell and collect insects. If you have a smaller piece of land, the smell will become an issue.
Many gardeners keep their organic composting bins either close to the house in order to add organic materials regularly. Others prefer it close to their garden, so they can add compost to the garden as needed. In this case, having a pail near the house can allow you to add kitchen waste without traipsing to the garden each time.
Location is important, keep these things in mind:
- Good ventilation– Placing compost in a corner, that does not get a good air flow will decrease the oxygen getting to your pile. Just as the bin must be well ventilated, having a location with good ventilation will also help decomposition.
- Full Sunlight – This will help organic compost stay warm, which will also aid the decomposition process.
- Well-drained level soil– Excess water will create anaerobic conditions. This will make your compost stink. Keeping your bin level will ensure it does not tip and will avoid erosion issues.
Choosing the Right Materials for Your Compost
The right organic materials aid in the decomposition process and ensure clean high-quality compost. Again, for maximum efficiency, you will want to ensure a good ratio of Brown to green, approximately 2 or 3:1.
· Dead leaves
· Wood Chips
· Twigs and branches
· Grass clippings
· Yard waste such as plants
· Fruits and vegetables
· Manure (Cow, horse, pig, chicken or rabbit)
· Kitchen Scraps such as eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, rinds from citrus or melons, fruit and vegetable peelings.
As a reminder, cut anything big into smaller pieces. This is true for all organic compost items, but particularly important for branches and other wood. These items decompose very slowly, reducing their size will speed up the process.
What to Avoid Putting into Your Organic Compost
Certain items can attract pests or add disease to your compost pile. Experienced composters may feel confident adding diseased plants to the pile. The heat generated by decomposition should kill them, but if you are a beginner, it is best not to take chances. It is best to avoid these things in your compost Pile:
- Dog and cat feces
- Meat and fish scraps
- Dairy products
- Weeds and weed seeds
- Diseased plants
Tending your Compost Pile
There are a few important steps to caring for your compost:
- Once you have layered brown and green materials correctly you can add a shovel or two of finished compost or garden soil o boost microbial activity.
- Mix well and water if needed or add more brown material if too wet.
- Allow organic compost to sit for a week and then turn it with a garden fork. Use a compost aerator to create ventilation if you have one.
- If it is hot and dry, make sure to add moisture as needed. If it has been wet, add more brown materials.
- Continue this process every week or two, turning, watering as needed, and check to see that the pile is warm. A thermometer can be used to check the temperature.
- When the organic materials are no longer recognizable, it is time to cure your organic compost. Cure by letting it sit for a few weeks. When it is dark and crumbly and smells earthy it is ready to use!
Things to Look Out For
Even if you are careful and follow all the instructions to make organic compost, things can go wrong. The weather can have a significant impact on the decomposition process. Knowing what to do, can help you save your pile from out of your control elements.
Too Wet: If the weather is not cooperating and your compost is getting too wet, it can lead to anaerobic conditions. This can slow the decomposition process and can make your pile smell bad. To fix a soggy pile, simply add more brown material to the compost bin. If you do not have any, you can use straw for this process. If your area frequently gets rainy, consider covering your compost bin with a loose lid. Air should still be able to get in, but the lid will keep excessive rain out.
Odors: A foul odor can indicate anaerobic conditions. This can happen not only if it gets too wet, but also if it is not turned enough. An ammonia smell may mean there is too much nitrogen. In either case, adding high carbon items and turning regularly can set things to right.
Too Cold: There are several reasons why your pile may get cold. Your organic compost pile may be too small, or you may need to turn it more often. It may be too dry, or simply just cold outside. Making sure your compost pile is large enough and that you turn it regularly will help provide the right conditions for microbes to create their own heat. If it is too dry, then add extra water. You can also mulch your pile with straw to help hold in moisture and heat.
Too Hot – If your pile gets too hot, you risk killing off the microorganism that decompose organic matter. A pile that is too hot is usually because it is too big or because there is too much green matter in it. Cut the size of your pile and add in more brown items to cool it down. Remember for optimal decomposition your pile should be between 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit.
When is Your Organic Compost Ready?
The time that it takes for organic compost to be ready varies greatly depending on many of the factors stated above. With optimal conditions, compost can be ready to use in 3 months. The best thing to do is know the signs of when your compost is ready rather than putting it on a timetable. When the organic materials are no longer recognizable, and organic compost is dark and smells earthy it is ready for you to use on your garden. You can sift out any large pieces of carbon materials if the rest of the compost is ready. Allow organic compost to cure for a bit to reduce the chance of it burning your plants.
Using Your Compost
You can incorporate your new organic compost into your garden before you start planting in the spring. This helps condition the soil and offers plenty of nutrients for your plants. During the summer you should add compost around the base of your plants. Not only does it serve as a fertilizer, but it makes a great mulch as well. Finally, if you want to try something new, learn about compost tea. This is a great way to spot fertilize plants both at the root and directly on leaves.
Organic composting does not have to be difficult or expensive. You can invest as little or as much money into it as seems right. What it must do is suit the needs of your garden, your lifestyle, and the area you live in. Well worth the effort, organic compost is the ideal soil amendment and food for your rapidly growing plants. Full of nutrients and beneficial organisms it can restore a balance in your garden for all of your organic gardening needs.