Sunday, August 16, 2009


Good Morning! My sister, Kelly, has asked me to do a blog on composting. I would like to make one thing clear, this is my first year to compost so I am by no means an expert, but I will share my experiences, ideas and research.
Composting is an ideal hobby to take up for many reasons; the first being that you will have organic material to add to your garden or houseplants. Compost adds invaluable nutrients to your soil, helps air circulate through the soil and down to the roots and also helps with water retention. Even if you're not a huge gardener, try composting, it uses up kitchen scraps and even some trash and your friends and neighbors would love a gift of "gardeners gold". Between all of the recycling that we do, and now throwing almost all of our kitchen scraps into my composting bin we hardly ever have to take out the trash.
One thing that I would really like to cover is to be really careful not to feed the wildlife with your compost. At the Royal Ranch this has been my biggest concern, as we all know, feeding wildlife is an absolute death sentence for those critters. They do not learn to hunt and gather on their own and larger animals (bear, mountain lion, coyote and fox) can become dangerous if they have learned they have a somewhat regular food source in your peaceful little yard. So far, I have avoided this by making sure any scraps are buried well under a "stinky" (like manure) layer each time I turn my compost, and it has worked very well.
Compost bins are available in all shapes and sizes, or can be made from scratch. If you have more money than time, I would use a tumbling type compost bin because the compost will be ready much sooner. If you are like me and have more time than money, make one from scratch; your compost will take longer, but I was able to make mine out of completely recycled materials, didn't cost me a dime. I took three pallets from Tom's shop that were going to be wasted and simply (I did it this time, really) nailed them into the shape of an open sided square. If possible, try to find pallets that have one solid side and put the solid side in, if not, no big deal it will just be a little messier. Build or place your bin in a well drained area, compost that is too wet gets very stinky. Try to put it directly on the ground as this will attract beneficial worms and organisms. If I had to do my composting off the ground, I would buy some worms to place in there after a couple of weeks.
Composting is very much like making a layered cake. You want to make sure that you have layers of each brown and green materials. Brown materials include things like:
  • raked leaves
  • hay or straw
  • tea bags
  • coffee grounds
  • paper and cardboard
  • small wood trimmings or pieces
  • eggshells
  • sawdust

Green materials are:

  • grass clippings
  • fruit and vegetable peelings
  • fresh manure
  • green plant cuttings
  • weeds and deadheads from your containers

To start your pile, clear the vegetation from the ground, if possible turn the soil down about six inches. Start with a layer of larger sticks to make sure the air can circulate underneath your compost, and then add a layer of brown ingredients. A green layer next, it is ideal to make your layers about 4 inches if possible. Continue adding layers until there is just enough room in your bin or pile or whatever, to stir the contents every couple of weeks. I have the original bin that I made, but I also have piles that I will work in different stages, the goal being that I will have compost all the time.

I do not get overly technical with mine, but there are all sorts of things that you can do to have great compost quicker. There are compost activators that can be used and all sorts of equipment that can help tell you when to turn your compost. For me, the best tip for fast compost is to cut all of your ingredients into small pieces, the smaller the piece the faster the breakdown. If you have large clippings that you would like to use, put them in a bucket and run the weed whacker through it a couple of times (don't forget your eye protection with this one!). Coffee grounds, good potting soil and even dog food also work as pretty good activators, try sprinkling them in between layers.

Things to never add to your compost pile:

  • meat or bones
  • treated wood (will leak chemicals into your compost)
  • very hardy weeds that will take too long to die off
  • fatty foods
  • whole eggs
  • dairy products

The tricky part for me has been the moisture level; if the pile is too wet it gets stinky and slimy (I hear) and it breaks down too slowly if it is dry (this is my problem). When adding layers, sprinkle them with water. It has also helped me to make sure the ingredients that go in are moist. Keep your compost covered (I use a heavy duty tarp that is stapled onto the pallets at the back) to help control moisture level and keep the heat in. I do want to mention that compost can get very hot and has even caused a few fires. When your pile is hot (a thermometer will read about 140*) it is time to turn it. Continue turning the pile every two weeks, breaking up any clumps for better air circulation and adding moisture if necessary.

Composting is very scientific, and I won't go into all of that, but the bottom line is that the finished product is a balance of carbon (brown materials) and nitrogen (green materials). You will know if you have a good balance by the length of time it takes for things to break down. Too much brown/carbon will break down too slowly, and too much green/nitrogen will get slimy. I keep a lot of things separate until I have enough to add a proper "layer to my cake". Keep a composting bin in the kitchen, it can be a fancy store bought one, or like me just use an old butter container or ice cream bucket. This way you can watch your pile and see which color (brown or green) you need more of, and can add it when you build up enough. I keep my scraps for about a week, then do my weekly clean of the corrals. I add the kitchen scraps and manure as my green layer and find enough brown material (for me this is old hay, pine needles, etc.) so that it is about equal.

Compost can be used on your houseplants, mixed in to make a beautiful new planting area, as a soil amendment and conditioner, and can be placed around the bottom of trees for added nutrients and growth. It is a great way to use up stuff that may end up in the trash, and is a lot of fun to watch progress. Good compost can take up to a year to complete, depending on the size of the materials you put in and how wet the pile is, so patience is a virtue! Good luck and great gardening!

No comments: