Composting: Getting Your Hands Dirty
In this article series about composting, we’ve gone through the benefits to yourself and the environment, misconceptions, methods and tools needed. Now it’s time to start getting your hands dirty!
In reality, as you’ve learned so far, you’ll use tools to work with your compost, so you won’t be getting your hands dirty. In this case, getting dirty means getting to work. The first step is selecting the type of container or bin you’ll work with, then picking a location to put it.
Choosing a Composting Container
There are many sizes, shapes, and styles of composting bins to choose from, from sophisticated tumblers to nothing at all just using an open area in your yard. You can also make a bin yourself out of old lumber or pallets.
Here’s an explanation of a few common types containers and bins:
A compost tumbler (pictured) is a cylindrical shape much like a drum laid on its side. It can be turned on a base that is supported on the flat ends. By turning the drum you are rotating and aerating the materials at the same time. It is an easy and effective way to rotate your compost.
A bio-orb container is shaped like a round ball and comes in various sizes. The benefits of this type of container are the ease of getting it around (you can roll it over to your yard waste and roll it back to its base), and the act of rolling it also aerates and rotates the contents. There are many small round holes in the container to let air in too.
A wooden box with slats or a wooden framed box with mesh sides can be purchased or easily made at home. If you can find four wooden pallets, you can nail them together to create a compost bin very inexpensively. Be sure to leave enough room in between each board for air circulation. You can use a piece of plywood or another flat piece of material large enough to cover the top as a cover. If you’re running low on wood another option is to enclose the pile with wire mesh.
If you have an empty corral or a small fenced area you may already have bin that’s ready to use.
If you do not want to use a bin at all, start with a pile of glass clippings or leaves and start to layer your food scraps on top. As time goes by and your pile continues to grow make sure you rotate and “stir” it frequently. Be warned though, it is not as easy to turn a pile that is not contained. They tend to grow in circumference over time as the pile spreads out after rotating.
Try to estimate how much compost you’ll need (explained in earlier articles) then see which of these options fit your requirements.
One you have in mind the type of bin you’ll use and how large it will be, then you can start thinking about where to set it up on your property.
The ground should be level and not prone to collecting excessive water (it needs good drainage). Your compost pile needs to stay moist but you do not want too much water or it will not work properly. In addition to level ground, make sure you can easily access the area with a wheelbarrow.
A shady location is best, if the compost pile gets too much sunlight it will get hot and dry out. Again, the pile needs to stay moist and overheating it with external sources will not help.
If you are beginning with a one bin system, you may want to leave enough room for a second bin down the road. By having two bins side-by-side, you can easily rotate or turn the pile by moving material from one bin to the next.
Choose an easily accessible location. Obviously it should be close to your garden to minimize transporting compost, and should be easy to monitor to ensure proper decomposition and to check for interlopers.
The location of your compost heap should not be near the edge of your property especially if you live near a forest or park area. This makes it very easy for animals to help themselves without being exposed by walking through your backyard.
As a rule, you should never put animal matter into compost (leftover meat and bones) not only do they not make for good composting they will be a magnet to wild animals.
An odor-free compost bin is less likely to attract bears or any other animal friends. You can achieve this by rotating or turning the compost pile at least once per week. Another precaution that should be taken is to have a bin with a cover whether it is commercially made or one you make yourself.
Another thing you can do is to put brown food such as lawn clippings on top of the green food (food scraps and other kitchen waste). You can purchase lime at your local nursery or hardware store to sprinkle on the top of your composting materials that will increase the rate at which everything decomposes.
Your compost bin should be accessible to a water source in case you need to moisten it from time to time. A hose works well, so make sure your bin is within reach or your hose.
Filling Your Bin
To permit adequate airflow, piles can be constructed with a base layer of fine sticks, smaller tree prunings, and dry brushy material. This porous base tends to enhance the inflow of air from beneath the pile. One powerful aeration technique is to build the pile atop a low platform made of slats or strong hardware cloth.
You are going to need approximately four inches of leaves as your compost base. If you are able to chip the leaves prior it will make things progress and breakdown faster but it is not a requirement. The quantity of leaves you will need to make a four-inch base will vary depending on the size of the bin you have chosen.
Your next layer should be about one inch of high-quality soil. If you cannot find this in your own garden a small bag purchased from your local nursery will work fine.
Then start layering the food for the microbes to eat. There are two categories of food you are going to need brown (yard waste) and green (food scraps or other organic waste). A common ratio is two parts brown for every part of green.
You will need a spade or heavy-duty pitch fork to turn or rotate the compost at least once per week to maintain airflow. If there is a dry-spell you will need a means of adding water to keep the pile moist.
If you see a swarm of flies around your compost bin chances are you have not put enough brown food (leaves, twigs, hay) on top of your kitchen scraps. The kitchen scraps are very inviting to fruit and house flies, make sure you don’t leave them exposed.
This is a reason not to add all available material to your pile right away. You need to maintain balance. Keep a large stack of dry, coarse vegetation handy. As kitchen garbage, grass clippings, fresh manure or other wet materials come available the can be covered with and mixed into this dry material. The wetter, greener items will rehydrate the dry vegetation and usually contain more nitrogen that balances out the higher carbon of dried grass, tall weeds, and hay.
Knowing how to maintain a balance in your pile will take some practice. The warning signs are easy to spot, such as orders and flies appearing. But subtle changes in proportion can affect the quality of your compost. Fortunately, even if your compost is not as high quality as it can be, your garden should still benefit.
Unless you are using a cold composting method, your compost pile is going to need regular care and maintenance. You need to monitor it for any foul odors, heat generation, and moisture levels. You will need to rotate or turn the material on a regular basis. You should know when to stop adding materials and let the process finish. And the final step is to use a screen to separate any larger materials that did not fully break down.
You will learn the trick of adding water to your pile to make it moist without making to wet with some trial and error. Inevitably you will make the pile too wet at one point during the process. If you do, try rotating the material to soak up any extra water and if that doesn’t work, add more brown food.
You can purchase a thermometer that is made especially for composting. You want the pile to retain a certain temperature to work properly (105-140 degrees Fahrenheit) but if it exceeds 155 degrees, it is too hot.
Routine turning of your pile is necessary to add oxygen, cut-down on odors and to aid in the breaking-down process. You should turn your pile every other day or at a minimum two times per week.
Once your pile is full or has finished the heat phase, let it cure. The length of curing will depend on your intended use of the finished product. To eliminate any larger pieces of organic matter that did not break down use a screen to sift them out.
A compost humus can be ready to use in as little as 3-4 weeks with a hot composting method and maintenance to the pile on a regular schedule. If you are going to use the cold (or inactive) method of composting, it can take up to one year for usable compost to be ready.
Previous composting articles: