Composting 101 – Everything You Need To Know About Composting

Composting is not new; nature has been doing it way before it was cool. Humans realized that they could mimic this process and improve the output of their crops. The word compost has its origins in two Latin words meaning “to bring” and “together”

Most things in nature eventually rot, whether we do anything or not. Composting is just a way to make it faster and more efficient.

While reading about composting, many sources make you believe that there is only one way to compost; that’s not true. There can be hundreds of ways to do it. Once you understand the basics, you can even develop your signature method. To be a successful composter, you need to know a few basic things

  • Regardless of how many mistakes you make, eventually, you will have your compost. It might not be exactly what you hoped for, but nature finds a way
  • You should also be aware of various species that take part in the process
  • An experimental zeal goes a long way
  • Some hard work is needed
  • And a pinch of art can make it so much better

As you get deeper into the art of composting, you might classify everything around you into three categories

  • Desirable biodegradable things
  • Undesirable biodegradable things
  • Non-Biodegradable things

Why should you compost?

We are continuously filling up the landfills and creating a massive problem for future generations. The dumps put a catastrophic burden on the ecosystem. The earth has its limit, and we are slowly pushing it towards it. Composting might not solve it entirely, but it can significantly reduce the burden on landfills.

Every Gardner and farmer knows that healthy soil is key to healthy plants. Poor quality soil makes the plants vulnerable to disease, insects, drought, and winds.

Compost is an effective tool to improve the quality of soil as

  • Compost contains nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; that are needed for optimal plant growth.
  • It also contains micronutrients like boron, iron, manganese, zinc, etc., that plants need in trace amounts.
  • The nutrients in compost are released as plants need them. In spring, when plants experience slower growth, compost slowly releases the nutrients; and in summer, when plant growth accelerated, the nutrients are released rapidly.
  • Compost binds with all kinds of soils to form a crumbly aggregate. This is useful in holding water and increasing the supply of oxygen.
  • Compost adds beneficial organisms like earthworms and other microorganisms in the soil.
  • Toxic metals like cadmium and lead are also neutralized by compost. It binds with them so the plants cannot absorb them.
  • Compost can also help in balancing the pH of the soil.

How decomposition works

Now that you know that compost can be a great addition to your farm or garden, it’s time to understand what makes compost so good.

Several lifeforms have to work hard To convert your garbage into compost. These include many species that you can see from your eyes and several tiny invisible ones. Any discussion about composting cannot be completed without giving them the credit they deserve.

Microorganisms

Let’s start with the hardest working bunch. Even though you can’t easily tell, but a handful of compost contains billions of microbes. These are some of the most important inhabitants of our planet. Without microbes, we will all be buried in several feet of garbage.

These creatures continuously convert organic waste into nutrients that plants need.

To survive and do their job, microorganisms need a few things.

  • Moisture – Like most life forms, microbes also need water to live. Suppose the level is too low, the decomposition halts. And if it is too high, it can force out all the oxygen suffocating the pile.
  • Oxygen – There is a class of bacteria called the anaerobes that need oxygen to survive. They use oxygen to break carbon into carbon dioxide and water and produce other vital nutrients in the process. They also make a lot of energy in the process, which they use to grow and work faster. If the oxygen is removed, anaerobic bacteria take over, they also produce the nutrients needed by the plants, but they are much slower. Anaerobes also produce useless organic acids and ammonia that give the compost a foul smell.
  • A source of energy ( Carbon) – You must be aware that humans need carbohydrates for energy. Just like us, bacteria also need a source of energy. For them, it is carbon. They derive it from dry plant materials like straw, cardboard, etc.
  • A source of protein (Nitrogen) – The bacteria use nitrogen to reproduce and break down the carbon for energy. Good sources of nitrogen include manure, fruits, and vegetables.

Types of bacteria

In reality, countless species of bacteria can be found in a composting pile; however, there are three main types that we focus on

  • Psychrophiles – These are the first species of microbes to invade the compost. They prefer temperatures around 55 degrees F (12.5 degrees C). When they start digesting carbon, they produce heat as a byproduct. This heat changes the conditions in the composting pile and making it suitable for other species.
  • Mesophiles – The second species to invade the pile are the mesophiles. These species of bacteria work at 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 30 degrees Celcius). Mesophiles are highly efficient, so even if your pile doesn’t get too hot, the decomposition continues. Studies have found that mesophiles can function even at temperatures as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit or 2 degrees Celsius. However, this temperature is not sufficient to kill all the pathogens and weeds.
  • Thermophiles – If mesophiles do their job correctly, the following species to enter the composting pile are thermophiles. They usually enter the pile at 100 degrees Celsius and take the temperatures to 160 degrees Celsius. In most cases, this elevated temperature can last for 3-5 days unless you keep adding new materials. However, this duration is sufficient for thermophiles to accomplish their job. Thermopiles acts as a disinfectant and remove most of the disease-causing organisms.

Depending on the conditions of a composting pile, one or more of these three will continue to convert organic matter into compost. Once all the organic matter is decomposed, the bacteria either die or enter an inactive state.

Macro-organisms

It would be wrong to give all the credit to microorganisms. Macroorganisms dig, chew, digest, and mix the components in a pile. This category consists of organisms like earthworms, insects, grubs, etc., that you can see with naked eyes.

Earthworms

We have known for ages that earthworms are our friends. They pass the organic matter through their bodies where tiny stones in their guts grind it, leaving behind rich, dark, granular castings. Earthworms and bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship. They digest food for each other and increase the overall availability of food.

Other Organisms

Along with bacteria and earthworms, several other species are at work, like fungi that break down cellulose and lignin. And actinomycetes that give the finished compost a pleasant smell.

Fungi and actinomycetes clean up after bacteria and digest the most rigid materials like starches and proteins.

Composting materials

According to our use and location, all of us have a different supply of organic matter. You might have an abundance of straw and hay, which can leave you with too much carbon and not sufficient nitrogen; or you can have plenty of manure and vegetable peels that can add more than required amounts of nitrogen, leaving you with a hot and aerobic pile (Smelly too!).

Finding the correct proportion requires you to have a rudimentary knowledge of composting biology. Usually, the more variation you can add to the pile, the better your compost will be. If you are an amateur, you need to remember a simple rule- one part of animal matter for two parts of plant matter.

There is an unlimited number of compostable substances out there. As long as it is biodegradable and is helpful to the bacteria, it can be added to the pile. However, some materials are more available than others. Let’s discuss their utility.

Materials to Add

Material Remarks 
Kitchen refuse  Most kitchen refuse is suitable for compost except for animal fat, grease, and oils. These can coat around compost particles completely cutting stopping their decomposition. Meat products should not be added to the composting pile either as they attract flies and animals.

 Properly dry them and mix them with other dry materials before adding.

Grass clippings  Properly dry them and mix them with other dry materials before adding
Straw The straw should be weathered before adding as unweathered straw requires a large amount of nitrogen to break down.
Hedge trimmings They provide excellent air penetration but remember to chop them before adding.
Leaves Leaves are a great addition to the composting pile, but they decompose slowly. You can chop them to increase the speed four times. 
Newspapers   Black and white newspapers are generally okay for the compost. It would be a good idea to ensure that they do not contain toxic dyes. 
Pine needles These decompose slowly and might increase the acidity of the pile. However, this is not usually a negative thing.
Sawdust  Sawdust is a good source of carbon, but it should be added as sprinkles between the layers. If you all it all in one go, it can solidify and becomes hard to decompose.
Weeds  If you add weeds, make sure that you include enough nitrogen to heat the pile to kill off the seeds. Also, add them in the center; else, they might start to germinate.
Ashes You can only use ashes from untreated wood. The ashes from charcoal and treated wood contain toxins that can negatively affect the compost. 

Materials to avoid 

 Colored paper This includes all your magazines and catalogs as well. The print industry is slowly moving towards non-toxic and biodegradable dies, but it’s best to avoid them until that happens.
Diseased Plants Even though excess heat can kill most of the plants’ pathogens, some might survive and infect the compost. It’s best to burn off diseased plants.
Pet litter Most pet litters are made up of non-biodegradable materials, and they might also contain pathogens like toxoplasma, which can cause blindness. 
Sludge  The sludge is biodegradable, but you need a particular process and very high temperature to get rid of disease-causing microbes and metals
Diary Products These can cause foul smells and also attract animals.

Composting Activators 

Yes, nature will decompose the waste material regardless of what you do; however, this process is slower than desired. To remedy this, a composting activator is utilized. It is a catalyst that gets things started quickly on a microbial level. Historically, many cultures used animal blood for this purpose. Don’t worry; we will not discuss it. Just a nice fact that I wanted to share!

So there are natural activators that are readily available for free, and then there are artificial activators that will require you to spend some money. Regardless of the type, an activator is nothing but a protein-rich source that you are adding to feed the microbes.

Natural Activators

Compost You can save some compost from your last batch and add it to your new pile. It adds beneficial bacteria and earthworms. Add 2 inches of compost for 12 inches of organic matter.
Soil  Soil is full of microbes that are needed for composting. Try to use loam which is free of insecticides. A good measure is to use 2 inches of soil for 6 inches of organic matter.
Manure Manure is a good source of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. You can use manure from bats, cattle, poultry, dug, goat, horse, pig, pigeon, rabbit sheep, and turkey. It can contain up to 80% water, so it’s best to dry it before using.
Meal   A meal is one of the best activators. You can blood meal, fish meal, cornmeal, or a protein meal like alfalfa or cottonseed. Just sprinkle some every 6 inches of compost, and your pile is up and running in 48 hours. 

Artificial Activators

Fertilisers  You can add artificial fertilizers like 10-5-10 to jumpstart a composting pile. However, compost purists don’t prefer this one.
Bacterial Activators They come in the form of tablets that contain dormant bacteria and fungi. You need to dissolve these in water and add it to the pile.

Green to brown ratio

Understanding the green to brown ratio is vital to master the art of composting. Greens are fresh scraps like vegetables and manure. Browns, on the other hand, are dried out matter like straw and bedding. Greens add nitrogen to the compost, while browns add carbon. The best ratio is one part green for three parts of brown. If you mess this up, the pile will not reach the desired temperatures, and it might take a long time for the process to finish up.

Composting Methods

We have discussed some essentials of composting. I hope that by now you know much more than an average Joe. Now let’s discuss some widely used methods of composting. It is important to note that these are by no means only methods to compost. You are free to discover your own you only need to follow the basic principles.

Composting Pit

This is a simple and straightforward method. Just dig a hole 12 to 14 inches deep, add the organic waste into it and cover it with loose soil. Then you wait and let the bacteria and other beneficial creatures turn your stinking pile into lovely smelling compost.

Compost Bin

A compost bin is a stationary container usually made of plastic. You add the scraps and organic stuff into it and ensure that the ratio of carbon and nitrogen is good. Turn it 2-3 times a week using a pitchfork and let nature take its course.

Compost Tumblers

Compost tumblers are advanced and more expensive variations of bins. They are equipped with a turning mechanism for easier turning. These are very sturdy and deliver results reasonably quickly.

Worm composting

Worm composting involves the usage of worms to make the process convenient. Worms can be a great asset as they are composting machines designed by nature. There are several species of worms out there, but the most preferred are the red wigglers. They have the fastest rate of reproduction and are readily available.

Worm bins are designed a little differently. There are continuous systems where you add waste at one end and collect compost from the other

System Advantages Disavantages
Outdoor Pile
  • Low maintenance 
  • Easy to start
  • Usually slow
  • It takes a lot of effort to turn
Bins
  • They look neat
  • They can hold more heat
  • Protection from animals
  • They are faster than a pile
  • They require time if you are DIYing or money if you are purchasing it
Tumblers
  • Dont create any mess
  • They produce compost much faster
  • Total protection from rain and animals
  • Turning is effortless
  • No foul smell
  • No nutrient leaching 
  • Fairly expensive
  • It functions better if you add all materials in one go
Worm Bins
  • Can work continuously 
  • Works both indoors and outdoors
  • Nutrient-rich
  • An excellent way to compost food waste
  • You need to check and remove castings regularly
  • Worms cannot survive in extreme temperatures
  • Fruit flies can also enter the pile 

We also have a more detailed comparison of these methods. You can check it out here.

How to make compost faster

People opt for composting because of multiple reasons. Some want to get rid of the excess leaves and kitchen waste, while others are looking to enhance their soil quality and make their plants happy; Then there are those who want to sell the resulting compost for some extra dough.

If you are doing it just to take care of the piling waste, speed may not be that important for you, and you might be happy if nature did things at its own pace. However, if you plan to use the compost in any way, you should certainly consider these things to get the final product much sooner.

Aeration  Oxygen is vital for worms and microbes to do their job. It would be best if you provided the pile with proper air channels. You can do this by

  • Adding course materials inside the pile
  • Turning it
  • Making air channels
  • Constructing it around wire meshes and drainage pipes
Water   The moisture content in a pile is also very critical. Try to maintain between 40% to 60%. If it’s lower, the bacteria might die of dehydration, and if its higher anaerobic process might take over. An excellent way to check it is by grabbing a handful and squeezing it. It should feel like a wet sponge with no more than a few drops of water coming out.
Turning  Turning helps in even distribution of raw materials and also circulate the air and water in a pile. It is preferable to turn it twice a week. If you do it more often, you can disturb the microbes and worms. And, too little turning will result in uneven decomposition, with the center of the pile getting maximum activity.
Grinding  Grinding can break materials into smaller particles that are easy to digest for microbes. Stuff like vegetables, vines, bushes, eggshells, cornstalks are hard to break and will elongate the process if you add them without crushing. Grinding also breaks down cellulose and cell walls. You can also add as much as four times more after grinding.

Things you should be worried about

pH pH is the measure of acidity and basicity. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 14. 1 is highly acidic, while 14 is highly basic, 7 is neutral. Too acidic or basic compost can kill plants. It would be best to check it often using pH strips or a device. Though a pile goes through several stages during the composting process. Initially, it may be acidic, and later on, it stabilizes. Also, the ingredients can affect the pH. Pine needles, for example, can make it acidic, and ashes can make it basic.
Heat  Heat is an essential indicator of microbial activity inside the pile. However, even at lower temperatures, some species of microbes keep on working, but it’s relatively slow. Composting works best in summer as the surroundings are much hotter and wind speed is slower. You can have the desired heat in winters by insulation your composting bin or adding more nitrogen-rich materials to produce heat.
Pathogens Pathogens can enter the composting pile through diseased plants or manure. If the pile reaches a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit and retains it for a few days, the pathogens will die off. However, if it doesn’t get that hot, you should avoid using compost in edible plants to be safe.
Insects   Most insects are not bad for the compost and help the process. However, you need to avoid symphylans and fly larvae that are not desired. Adding some screening helps prevent flies from entering the pile.
Weeds Weeds are a common nuisance for composters. It’s incredible how fast they grow and take over. To avoid them, you need to pull them out from the roots as soon as you see them. Also, avoid adding soil to the top of the compost. 

How to use the finished compost

If you did most things right, you could expect to get finished compost in four to six months. However, this time can significantly increase or decrease based on the factors like surrounding temperature, contents of the pile, moisture level, etc. so rather than assigning a definite time to the composting process, and it is better to learn the properties of finished compost so you can decide for yourself if it’s ready or not.

Properties of finished compost

  • It should feel crumbly, Which means it’s powdery and fluffy but not stringy. It allows air to enter and retains moisture
  • It is free of pathogens and weeds (if the proper temperature was attained during the process
  • It should contain an adequate amount of macronutrients as well as sufficient micronutrients
  • It should be dark in color, and it must be obvious why compost is known as black gold
  • The smell of finished compost is earthy and pleasant, not foul and moldy

If you are unsure if it’s finished or not, you should leave it for a few more weeks. This process is called curing. Most composters know that curing makes it more valuable

How to Use Compost

Compost is full of nutrient goodness which plants cherish. The best thing about compost is that rather than releasing all nutrients in one go, it adds them slowly according to the plant’s needs.

The best time to add compost to the plants is during the fall. You can spread it all over your garden and let it sit throughout the winter. It is preferred if you mix it with the soil as it distributes the nutrients evenly.

Storage

It would be best if you used the compost as soon as it’s ready. You can store it in plastic bags for a few months; however, it loses its value after a while.

How much compost is needed by the plants

Even though compost is good for plants, but you can’t grow them in only compost. Too much of a good thing can be harmful. The recommended dose is one part of compost for three pieces of soil for potted plants and a 1/2 to 1/4 inch layer for garden soil.

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