of Compost Heaps!
Yes, there is
nothing better than a pile of rotting garbage! Not when it's within a
compost heap, that is. Our ancestors never had a huge truck pull up to
haul away whatever plants or animal matter they didn't use. Plants that
were left dead on the ground were soon consumed by scavengers or simply
decayed. Thus, the cycle of life brings value to these living plants and
creatures even in with their death and decay.
create their own compost heaps they become part of something bigger than
themselves. By the simple act of putting table scraps, yard clippings,
fallen leaves, or anything of an organic nature into their compost heaps
they are giving back to the earth a present of life. It is the supreme
environmental act as it saves this "trash" from a landfill where it will
receive very little air and have very little time to decompose
naturally. What little matter does decay will be trapped deep within the
earth, far too deep to be of much value to the plants on the surface.
But when used in a gardeners compost heap, they become a valuable
commodity, ready and willing to enrich and renew the very earth they
originally sprang from.
design is responsible for the work of a compost heap. Inside, hidden
from our eyes, billions of tiny decay organisms feed, grow, reproduce
and die, while all the time recycling our household and garden wastes
into into a wonderful organic soil conditioner and fertilizer. Nature's
decomposition of dead biological matter is constantly, but gradually
working all the time. By building a compost heap, we just use nature's
plan and speed up the process a bit. All for our own greedy goal of
dark, rich, fertile compost for our gardens. Sounds selfish, but its far
More and more
municipal governments are getting into large scale composting programs
as they have organized separated trash bins for their citizens to
separate out yard clippings. Those cities that do large scale composting
of these materials are few and far between, but they are to be applauded
for their wonderful effort on the earth's behalf. Those systems can
process literally tons of organic material, but what we'll discuss here
will be on the much smaller, backyard variety scale.
As much as
three fourths of household garbage is organic and compostable. If
everyone with the facilities had their own compost heap, we could reduce
landfill use tremendously and avoid burying nutrients and trace minerals
too deep within the ground to be of any use to us. Oh the gardens that
could be grown around the world then! About the only downside to this
scenario would be that we'd probably have to lay off some sanitation
engineers, but we're sure there would be plenty of openings in the
recycling and produce export industries to compensate for this.
Your Compost Heap
It's best to
think of the compost heap as a living thing. An community of organisms
that require four basic ingredients to live. Give them a balanced diet,
air, water and warmth and your community will thrive and do just what
you'd like them to. By understanding these basic needs, anyone can
create a productive community of of hardworking composting
microorganisms that will reduce your organic waste into a fertile soil
additive that your garden will love you for.
How would you
like to eat apples, everyday, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
No,.. you couldn't put anything on them, just apples, day after day
after day. You'd probably get pretty bored, pretty fast. More
importantly though you'd also probably get pretty ill as your body needs
more varied nutrients than just apples alone can provide. We all know
that apples are a very healthy thing to eat, but nobody would eat only
apples. Our appetites crave different foods for a reason. We need a
balanced diet to survive. The microarmy within your compost heap likes
and needs variety as well. They require the correct amounts of carbon
for energy and nitrogen for forming protein (what composters call the
C/N ratio) in order to live and function efficiently. A high C/N ratio
indicates there is excess carbon which will slow down decomposition as
nitrogen is depleted. A C/N ratio that is too low indicates there is too
much nitrogen, and will waste nitrogen by allowing it to escape into the
air, causing unpleasant odors, as well as leaching it into the water
which then causes a source of pollution.
you're tempted to click away from this subject, we're not going to tell
you that you'll be standing there with a measuring cup, putting each
different type of trash into a measuring cup and adding it to the pile
in precise quantities. That's not where we're going with this. Simply
put, the quality and quantity of what ingredients you compost will
effect the process and determine how tasty this will all be to your
garden when it's done. If you simply keep this in mind when adding to
the heap, you'll be able to better organize how you do so and thus
better the result you'll end up with.
will usually be pretty well mixed as we humans do love our variety as
much as our compost micro buddies. If you have a lot of yard clippings
of all sorts, usually there will be no problem there as well. But
certain items may require some extra thought. An example would be the
high nitrogen materials such as grass clippings, and the high carbon
materials like sawdust. Using alternate layers of each in between a
layer of dirt will alleviate much of the problem. As a general rule of
thumb, high nitrogen materials tend to be green, moist and usually
sloppy. High carbon materials will usually be brown or yellow and tend
to be dry and bulky. Just remember, too much of anything is a bad thing
so try to diversify your heap as much as possible and you should be just
fine. The following is a list to help you better understand how to
diversify your waste:
Compostables with the Mostables!
higher nitrogen wastes):
Cover Crops (Green manures like Rye Grass)
Fruit wastes and grains
Hair (Pet or Human)
Seaweed (better rinse well first though)
Weeds (for hot piles only - will kill them off)
Fish & Seafood Scraps *
Eggs and Eggshells *
* Most animal
scraps will slow decomposition and sometimes attract animal pests.
Also, some communities have compost pile ingredient restrictions so
check with local authorities.
high carbon wastes):
Corncobs and cornstalks
Nutshells (preferably crushed)
Vegetable stalks and Seeds (seeds for hot piles only)
There are some
items even the composting zealots agree are best left out of your
garden's compost heap. Pet and human feces may carry disease organisms
so don't even think about it. Meat scraps and fatty materials break down
quite slowly while attracting unwanted animals so leave them out as
It's okay to
add most ashes to your heap, but stay away from coal ashes. This
includes those charcoal ashes found on the bottom of any barbecue. Coal
ashes are extremely high in both sulphur and iron, carrying amounts that
are toxic to plants. Also avoid adding any sort of colored paper like
that found in magazines or newspaper inserts because of the potential
for toxic ink and paper coatings that they may contain. The basic
compost motto here is, 'When in doubt, leave it out!"
One thing you
never want to include in your compost are plant materials that show
signs of any sort of disease. Even though an ideal compost should reach
temperatures great enough to kill the disease organisms, it's not worth
the chance. You should throw these items in your regular trash bins, or
if you community allows, you can burn them. Once completely burned the
ashes can then be added to the compost heap safely.
You'll need to
begin with a breeding colony of little micro compost buddies by
introducing them into your heap from some rich garden soil or finished
compost material. This should contain enough micro soldiers to get the
ball rolling, but you can also buy commercial compost activators. These
activators are nothing more than the microorganisms needed that are dry
and dormant. The moisture in your pile should bring them back into
action. Be cautious with a container of compost activator though. Once
opened, put the container in a plastic bag to prevent accidental
moisture from activating the remaining portion.
composting microorganisms need water to survive. But again, too much of
a good thing can be bad. If your compost heap is soaked, the water will
drive out the air between the materials in the heap and you may kill or
thwart your compost micro army. A good pile should be about as moist as
a damp sponge. To ensure the proper moisture level there are a few
things you can do.
Layer the most wet and sloppy materials
like fruit wastes with absorbent ingredients such as dried leaves or
Construct your pile in an area that has
good drainage. You can place a bottom layer of gravel or sand if
warranted by the chosen location.
As you build your pile, water each layer.
Remember that the pile will need moisture so recheck it in a few days
to make sure it hasn't dried out.
With a pitchfork or large shovel, turn
over the pile to release excess moisture that can prevent proper
heating. This also has the benefit of adding air to the pile (as we'll
discuss later) as well.
Protect your pile from excessive drying
heat or rain by giving it a cover if you make a compost bin. If yours
is a free form, consider covering it with straw, or other temporary
ground cover capable of letting in air.
If you live in a dryer climate, shape the
top of your compost heap with a concave top that will trap rainwater
and allow it to absorb into the pile. If your climate is too rainy,
use a rounded top design so that water will quickly roll off it and
Your legions of
compost micro armies will need to breath under all that stuff. This can
be very important to make a "hot" (active) compost heap. There are a few
simple techniques you can use that will get the air where it's needed.
important way to aerate your heap is to "turn the pile" every
so often so that you can mix in air amongst the composting material.
This will disturb the middle of the heap and slow it's decaying
processes there, but only temporarily and with better results for the
Build your pile
on top of some sort of course materials like wood chips or brush so that
air can get in from underneath. If your building a compost bin,
incorporate a space from below where air can enter the heap.
Put sticks into
the pile as you are building it. Then when you're done, you can pull out
the sticks and have ready made air shafts right into the heart of the
pile, where air is needed most. Poking holes into the pile with a
crowbar or garden fork will also achieve the same goal.
leaves and garden scraps before adding to your pile. Don't use too much
materials like grass clippings or paper as they can form impermeable
layers when wet that can cut off air supply. Mixing these with other
materials will help.
your pile more than five and a half feet high as the weight of the
compost heap will drive out any trapped air below.
that has been drilled with holes at intervals by burying it in the
middle and creating a type of air shaft for the pile. Sunflower stalks
and straw can be buried as well with their ends protruding as they will
allow air to be drawn into the heap through their shafts.
Cool Compost Heaps
This is compost
terminology for what temperature the compost heap is decaying at. The
act of decomposition creates a certain amount of it's own heat. With the
proper C/N ratio, moisture and aeration, a "hot" pile can reach
temperatures of about 160 degrees Fahrenheit, but will still give good
results if temperatures are as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Often
times people in colder climates will cover their compost heaps with
insulating materials like leaves or bales of hay to keep the heap
decaying even through the winter.
A "cool" or
"cold" compost heap is not good. Sometimes referred to as a "passive"
pile, this usually occurs when the heap receives little or no "turning."
There will still be some activity in the pile, but it will most likely
be the slow "Anaerobic" type that will take much longer due to
the lack of oxygen for the microorganisms that drive the composting
In just about
all cases, an "Aerobic" compost heap that is hot will be
desired by most gardeners since you'll reap the benefits of the heap
much sooner and with a better quality compost product. To help ensure a
hot pile, never make yours less than three feet in diameter or the mass
will be too small for proper heating. Conversely, too large a mass isn't
good either as you'll then interfere with the pile's aeration.
Designing Your Compost Heap!
put the blue prints away. Designing your compost heap isn't that
complicated, but it is definitely a matter of personal taste. The main
thing you need to keep in mind are the four things your little compost
micro buddies will need to do their work. Namely, air, water, warmth and
a good balanced diet.
Air is an
important consideration if you are designing some sort of bin or compost
enclosure. You have to ensure that the heap will be able to get air from
all sides as well as it's top. To create an even better and hotter pile,
consider some design tricks to get air in from underneath as well. If
circumstances prevent a design allowing for this, you can still add
modifications like perforated drainage tubing inserted into the pile for
air shafts. Keep in mind though that these will make turning much more
difficult. Steel wire mesh formed into tubes also will work for this as
Water must be
allowed for in your design as well. Your pile will need to be kept
moist, but not drenched so good drainage is important. Water retention
is not to be dismissed as well. If building a compost bin with porous
materials like brick or concrete blocks, drench them before adding your
compost material so that they wont draw moisture from the pile. It's
also a good idea to apply some water to them, letting it trickle down
the walls. This way the pile may draw moisture from them.
If you are
constructing your site of brick or cement blocks, these materials may
actually help to keep the pile warm as they will absorb heat during the
day, retaining it even after the sun has gone down. Placing your heap in
a sunny area is another way to ensure a good warm temperature.
diet that you'll feed your compost is not quite as important a factor in
your heaps design as the above, but does warrant some thought for your
convenience. The piles location will determine how far you'll have to
haul your organic material to be include it in the heap. While you may
not want it right next to the kitchen, close by will make it more
convenient to include table scraps. Also think about whether or not
you'll feed it a lot of yard clippings. Is there good access from where
those will be collected to your compost heap? These factors wont really
matter much to your pile, but they may save your back and possibly make
it more likely that you'll keep up with the composting habit.
don't really even need to be designed at all. A simple pile that's at
least 3 feet in diameter will do just fine. New material can be just
thrown on top and cover finely with a layer of soil. Add water
occasionally and stir (aerate) and Walla! You'll have compost.
You can make
yours round, or square, whatever suits your purpose. Some people even
dig a hole and fill it with their material, using the dug up earth to
cover each layer. You can even dig a trench by a row of plants that
would benefit, throw in your layers of material and cover. As this turns
into compost in will enrich the nearby plants.
crave more structure in their lives and like to keep things neat and
organized. These gardeners may want to build a compost bin to keep their
heap in good shape and control animal pests access to the pile. These
simple structures can be made up of steal wire mesh and treated stakes
to use as support. They can be more elaborate by having the mesh in wood
framed panels, some or all of which can be removed to allow access.
Redwood planks can be used for a compost frame if slats are left exposed
to the air so that the pile can breath. Bricks have been used as well
for compost walls, but it's best to leave cracks between the sides of
the bricks to ensure proper air flow. Cement Cedar blocks do nicely as
well if laid on their sides for air exposure. Most are heavy enough not
to even need mortar to construct. Wire mesh can be used to line any of
these types, just take care when using a pitch fork that you don't catch
the ends in the mesh.
right,.. worms. Not your garden variety earthworms, mind you, but
compost loving worms that are bred specifically to help you decompose
your compost pile while providing nutrient rich worm casings to the mix
as well. Compost worms can be gotten from many sources
and can speed up the decomposition of your top layers of organic
material. Having been bred specifically in compost conditions, they tend
to like the warmer temperatures provided by most piles. Once introduced,
they will most probably double their population within about a months
are sometimes referred to as "reds" or "blue-gray
thins" but are different than your garden variety earthworms.
Because they like warmer temperatures, they can also be used indoors
during the winter in a "worm box" designed to process kitchen
scraps. Using a box (commonly made of wood) you can place shredded
newspapers, moldy leaves or manure as the bedding, then add your worms.
In general, you'll need about 1 pound of worms to process about a half a
pound of scraps per day. You can feed them your leftover vegetable
scraps daily, but it's best to grind them up in a blender first so they
can munch on them easier.
As a bonus,
these worms will produce "worm casings" (their waste products) which
contain valuable microorganisms and are five times richer than most
fertile soil. If your worms reside in your compost heap, they will
simply add to the richness of your compost. If you use multiple side by
side compost bin designs, allow for a dirt path between your air
allowances so they can move from a finished pile into the rotting one
If you are
utilizing an indoor worm box for your composting, you can move the built
up worm casings and worms to one side, putting down another bed and
fresh scraps on the other and allow the worms to go to the new food.
When they've all headed for greener garbage, scoop out the worm casings
and treat your garden to a very nutritious top dressing or throw it in
your outside pile for use as extra microorganism activators. And who
said worms were disgusting?!
Your Finished Compost!
it's compost when it's appearance is crumbly and it smells like rich
soil with no hint of rotting aroma. A great indication is when your pile
cools down. At this point you're ready to use the compost to benefit
your garden. Compost is very versatile and you wont have to worry about
burning plants or polluting water.
such as squash and corn thrive on unfinished compost that still shows
signs of organic material. But most prefer it when it is finished,
having been aged long enough so that the decomposition process has
stabilized. Compost is a great material to condition soil before
planting vegetables. It is best to work it into the first foot of soil
in a decent proportion, then complete by liberally working it into the
top two or three inches of soil.
especially trees will benefit from using your compost to top dress the
soil. Avoid using compost enriched soil to back fill in new transplanted
trees that will be growing in poor soil as it will tend to make their
roots bunch up around the mixture instead of seeking out nutrients
deeper into the soil.
If you have
plants that will benefit from a quick dose of nutrients, you may want to
try making "compost tea" to water them with. By taking a cloth
bag, filling it with compost and putting the bag into a container filled
with water, you can leave it there to steep for about a week, then use
the resulting enriched liquid on your plants.
reason for considering composting, your garden will surely benefit.
Although this technique is more associated with organic gardeners, it is
actually used by smart gardeners of all types, as well it should be. Not
only will it provide you with a rich organic soil additive, but it will
do so at no charge. It will also reduce the waste material that you and
your family send to the city dump as well, and that's something anyone
can feel good about. But most importantly perhaps, this is a tool that
Mother Nature has given us all. A tool that shouldn't be wasted or
trivialized. Perhaps the best thing of all is that it's so easy. By
utilizing the information included above, there is no way to fail. Most
of the work is done by the tiny microscopic compost organisms that are
more than happy to eat your garbage into a rich and useful compost. If
you've never tried composting, we urge you to do so. Your garden will
love you for it, and so will our mother earth!
subscribe or visit go to: