Construct a bin for your compost. While you still can compost successfully in a pile on the ground, a bin will keep the process neater and will help to discourage animals if you are composting food scraps. Depending on the construction of the bin, it can also help to regulate moisture and temperature. A good minimum size for a pile is at least 1 cubic yard or 1 cubic meter, though a pile can go larger than this, and smaller-scale composting can be made to work.
Fill your bin with a balanced mixture (for best results): Green grass clippings with brown fallen leaves mixed in a compost bin.
Add “Green Stuff“ (high in nitrogen) to activate the heat process in your compost. Perfect heat-generating materials include: young weeds (before they develop seeds); comfrey leaves; yarrow; chicken, rabbit or pigeon manure; grass cuttings; etc. Other green items that compost well include fruit and vegetables; fruit and vegetable scraps; coffee grounds and tea leaves (including tea bags – remove the staple if you wish); vegetable plant remains; plants.
Add “Brown Stuff“ (high in carbon) to serve as the “fiber” for your compost. Brown stuff includes fall (autumn) leaves; dead plants and weeds; sawdust; cardboard & cardboard tubes (from foil wraps etc); old flowers (including dried floral displays, minus plastic/foam attachments); old straw and hay; and small animal bedding. Fallen leaves are excellent brown stuff.
Other items that can be composted but you may not have thought of before include: paper towels; paper bags; cotton clothing (torn up); egg shells; hair (human, dog, cat etc.) Use all these items in moderation.
Things To Consider:
AIR. It is possible to compost without air (called anaerobically), but the process employs different bacteria and an anaerobic compost pile will take on a sour smell like vinegar. It may also attract flies or take on a matted, slimy appearance. If you believe your compost pile needs more air, turn it, and try adding more dry or brown stuff to open up the structure.
Water. Your pile should be about as damp as a sponge that has been wrung out. Depending on your climate, you can add water directly or rely on the moisture that comes in with “green” items. A lid on the compost bin will help to keep moisture in. If a pile gets too much water in it, it might not get enough air.
Temperature. The temperature of the compost pile is very important and is an indication of the microbial activity of the decomposition process. The simplest way to track the temperature inside the heap is by feeling it with your hand. If it is warm or hot, everything is decomposing as it should, but if it is the same temperature as the surrounding air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more materials that are high in nitrogen to the bin.
Soil or starter compost. This is not strictly necessary, but a light sprinkling of garden soil or recently finished compost between layers can help to introduce the correct bacteria to start the compost cycle a little more quickly. If you are pulling weeds, the soil left on the roots may be sufficient to serve this purpose. Compost starters are available, but probably not necessary.
Layer or mix the different materials in your bin so that they come into contact with one another and so that you avoid any large clumps. Especially avoid compacting large quantities of green materials together, since they can rapidly become anaerobic.
If possible, start with a layer of lightweight brown material, such as leaves, to help keep enough air near the bottom. Try for a mixture of anywhere from 3 parts brown to 1 part green to half and half, depending on what materials you have on hand. Sprinkle each layer lightly with water as you build the heap, if it requires additional moisture.
Turn your pile regularly, once every week or two. Clear a patch next to the pile. Then use a pitchfork and move the entire pile to the clear spot. When it is time to turn the pile again, move it back to the original spot, or back into the bin. Mixing the pile in this way helps to keep air flowing inside the pile, which encourages aerobic decomposition. Anaerobic decomposition will smell very stinky (generally sour, like vinegar) and they decompose materials more slowly than aerobic bacteria. Turning the pile helps to encourage the growth of the right kind of bacteria and makes for a nice, sweet-smelling pile that will decompose faster. Also, try to move matter from inside to outside and from top to bottom. Break up anything that is clumpy or matted. Add water or wet, green materials if it seems too dry. Add dry, brown materials if the pile seems too wet. If you are still adding to the pile, take the opportunity while you turn it to introduce the new matter and mix it well with the older matter.
Decide whether to add slow rotting items such as tough branches, twigs and hedge clippings; wood ash; wood shavings and wood pruning. They can be composted, but you may want to compost them separately because they will take longer to break down, especially in a cold climate with a shorter composting season.
Shred heavy materials, if you can, for faster decomposition. It will decompose, but it will take a long time.
Try to avoid composting bread, pasta, nuts, and cooked food. They don’t break down very easily, become quite slimy, and can hold up the heating, rotting-down process. (Old nuts left in the garden will disappear quickly if you have squirrels or monkeys around!)
Never compost the following items for reasons of health, hygiene and inability to break down: meat and meat scraps; bones; fish and fish bones; plastic or synthetic fibers; oil or fat; pet or human feces (except for manure of herbivorous creatures such as rabbits and horses); weeds that have gone to seed; diseased plants; disposable diapers (nappies); glossy paper or magazines; coal and coke ash; and cat litter. Place these items in the normal garbage collection. Not a good diet for your compost pile.
Harvest your compost. If all goes well, you will eventually find that you have a layer of good compost at the bottom of your bin. Remove this and spread it on or dig it into your garden beds. One use for finished compost. You may wish to sift it through a coarse mesh screen or use your hands or pitchfork to remove any larger chunks that haven’t yet broken down. Very fresh compost can grow plants, but it can also rob the soil of nitrogen as it continues to break down. If you think you are not all the way done, either leave the compost in the bin for a while longer or spread it in your garden and let it sit there for a few weeks before planting anything in it.
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