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The Secrets To Successful Composting

The Secrets To Successful Composting

Image: Panphage 

Image: Panphage 

Composting is an essential part of maintaining an abundant, organic, rich and affordable food garden. Sadly, more often than not, eager composters hoping for sweet crumbly black gold end up with an unpleasant, unusable, stinking sludge at the bottom of their bin. What went wrong? Some simple composting guidelines can help to better build a rich soil conditioner that will in turn grow a healthy, happy food garden.

Can I Compost This?
Most urban food growers have black plastic compost bins in their backyards to which they add their household food scraps and garden waste. I affectionately call these Darth Vaders for their black helmet-like appearance. Vaders are a type of “cool composting” and are certainly efficient compost bins, but they are not your local, municipal food scraps pick-up program. They will not decompose certain foods like an industrial composting plant will. That means, when disposing of food waste, your composter won’t be having any of that meat, dairy, oil or fish. In addition, any processing will render your food waste uncompostable. No bread, no pasta, no cooked food. Only fresh, undressed fruit and veggie scraps can be composted in your Vader.

Trimmings from your yard can go in your compost as long as there are no weeds in the mix. Keep in mind that large twigs and branches will not decompose quickly enough in your Vader composter. You will either need to shred them into smaller bits or set aside a pile for removal. 

Grass clippings are a great source of nitrogen and can be added as long as you have not used any toxic pesticides and herbicides to keep your lawn pristine. You certainly don’t want to be adding that to something you will later be ingesting. Now, if you have a large lawn and a massive pile of clippings, stuffing a two foot deep grass pile in your compost will not serve you well—unless you want piles of foul scum and rats. For those less rat cuddly, there are methods to layering your compost so that you are rodent-free and compost-rich.

Greens and Browns
Composting is a carbon/nitrogen balancing act. It’s not terribly difficult but there are two words you should become well associated with when building a healthy compost: greens and browns. These two are the building blocks of your compost and should be added in equal parts. 50 per cent greens, 50 per cent browns. It’s quite simple, but many new composters are not informed about this balance. They just add green, greens, greens and end up with no air flow. All that nitrogen can only break down so far until the fleshy, wet material becomes compacted. Oxygen-deprived, anaerobic bacteria enters the scene and your compost smells like a fecal war zone. Composting requires browns to oxygenate and aid break down of materials. So what are greens and browns then?

Greens are nitrogen-rich, fleshy, wet, usually green materials. Greens are too often solely added to personal use composts. They are all your fruits, vegetables, grass clippings, fresh leaves, etcetera. 

Browns are the regularly forgotten, unsung heroes of composting. Browns are carbon-rich, usually brown, dry, brittle materials. Browns can be dried leaves, newspapers, shredded twigs and branches, coffee bean chaff, hay, shredded cardboard and so on. 

A common compost issue is that greens are often in excess as they account for the bulk of our food waste, whereas browns can be more difficult to come by. An easy way to avoid this is to keep a pile of leaves from the previous fall next to your compost bin. Then, when you have added your greens quota, you have some browns readily available. Follow these steps and you should have dark, rich, sweet smelling compost in about six months.

Hot Composting
If six months is just too long to wait and you have more space and more organic waste than a Vader can contain, you can build a three bin, hot compost in stead, These take a little more maintenance but will kill weed seeds and pathogens and will yield more compost in a shorter time period. 

Hot composts heat up to temperatures of 120 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit within one to five days, with a typical peak of 150 degrees. You will need to record your compost’s  temperature to ensure that it gets hot enough but not too hot. If your compost heats up to 150 degrees for more than a few hours you can end up killing beneficial microorganisms essential to the composting process.

When you have built your bins and have accumulated enough material to fill one, here’s what you’ll need to do.

• Toss your greens and browns together in a well-blended mix up to the top of your container

• Add a shovelful of already finished compost or native soil, which will be full of microorganisms to jumpstart the process.

• Monitor and record your pile's daily temperature with a compost or meat thermometer attached to a stick.

• Every four to seven days, when the temperature of the pile cools below 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius), turn the organic matter to introduce more oxygen and heat it back up.

• After about two weeks, the greens and browns you originally added will no longer be recognizable. Continue monitoring and recording daily temperatures and repeating the turning process.

• After one month, the pile no longer heats up after turning, and the bulk of it is dark, crumbly compost.

• At this point, let the compost cure for two to three weeks. Then spread around your plants and enjoy!

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