Currently, I have four active compost projects going on. I thought I’d share some thoughts on how we do compost.
One of our chief composting projects consists of a bin, really just a 90 gallon trash can with lid. I drilled some drainage and vent holes in the bottom and lower sides and have a pretty fast composter, if I use it properly. Its been steamy hot and then sometimes it cools off and the composting process slows. The problem with this kind of bin comes when I add more materials, and that is about every day. Since it has a lid and is closed, kitchen waste goes in this one. I mix new materials in with a pitchfork to bring oxygen into the older material. That’s good practice. But since I am constantly adding to it, its not a homogenous mixture with everything at one stage in the process. Because of that, I will eventually, have to turn it out to get the good stuff by shaking it through my hardware cloth sifter. The challenge with this composting method is to keep it hot and active. Since it only gets small additions every other day or so, and most of that is kitchen scrap, it stalls out. I really get it heated up after I add some lawn clippings and mix them in. Not the perfect or fastest way of composting, but its the fastest composting we do around here. Here’s a good primer on this type of composting.
I also have a wire cage, basically just a couple of loops of hog wire fencing. I put lawn clippings, leaves, old peat pots and various garden waste in this one. Its slow, doesn’t heat up much, and cold composts into black gold in about a year. I often take grass clippings off the top for mulch. Currently there are squirrels in the center decomposing as well. More on that in a second article on composting animal matter.
I also have two piles of lawn clippings, branches and leaves that cold compost over the long haul. I’m in no rush, I can wait. This method, a long term pile, lends itself to soil preparation where the existing soil is shallow or too hard with clay. We have black gumbo clay here, hence the blog name. This stuff is filled with rich nutrients, but its so fine that the nutrients are locked up in a hard, stone like soil when dry, and a dense, sticky, oxygen-deprived glue when wet. One productive method of long term soil improvement has been to pile grass clippings in an area for a few years. When ready to use the area, you should find it nice and loamy underneath. If trying to condition hard gumbo clay, throw a few bags of play sand down first, then put a long term compost pile on top. Before long, the clay will be worked a bit loose by the combined action of the sand and organic matter. Soon, it will be a good place to plant some soil-improving plants like legumes.
I have seen several Youtube gardeners who compost only grass clippings, saying they have the proper ratio of green (Nitrogen) to brown (Carbon), and have had good results with it. They show how grass is not all green but includes much thatch and dead grass, the equivalent of dead, dry leaves, and they consider that to be brown carbon material. I am not sure that really flies, but I do know that a grass clipping pile, left to decompose over a year or three, makes really loamy, rich soil. I’d like to have some analyzed for its NPK ratio. Maybe I’ll do just that. With the rate of grass growth around here there is no shortage of lawn clippings.
What do we compost?
Everything that will break down. Ultimately, everything is natural and will break down into elements, but we’re interested in natural, organic, traditional stuff that will decompose quickly. Ideally, we want a balance of Nitrogen to Carbon, green to brown. That’s what is needed to keep a pile brewing away and hot. Nitrogen is easy, its the carbon most people can’t seem to get enough of, including us. We just add everything and we don’t really worry about ratios, eventually it all breaks down. I do like to mix it up when possible – kitchen scraps plus some grass clippings, mixed up, generate a nice, hot pile. I don’t worry too much about composting quickly like some folks do.
We put in coffee grounds and paper filters every day. Tea bags (with the staple, it will rust away in days), used loose leaf tea, veggies that have gone past their best days, fruit and potato peels, vegetable scraps, apple cores, watermelon rinds, egg shells, and virtually anything non-meat. I add lawn clippings to my bin too but try not to overwhelm the mixture, most of the lawn clippings get tossed on a slow pile. I like to add strips of cardboard too, thats a good source of carbon. If I had a shredder, I’d really be set. Put that stuff in the compost! Make sure to take off glossy papers, stickers and tape. Newspaper makes a good carbon addition too. Shredded is best, strips work too. The compost pile is a good place for your Amazon boxes.
Other things that can be composted include hair, feathers, sheep, cow and horse manure, hay, old veggie plants (if they are 100% free of disease), all your ornamental plants, flower bed leftovers and herb garden remains, wood chips, saw dust, leftover peat pots and seed starting pellets, straw, and so on. If you live near the ocean, seaweed makes a good source of trace minerals. Virtually anything organic and non-fatty makes for good compost.
If you have cage pets, compost rodent bedding and bird cage liners. Pine shavings for my son’s hedgehogs were fantastic compost material in year’s past. Dog and cat feces and human excrement should not be composted due to pathogens and harmful microbes. So they say. I don’t compost those things, but cities do. When you buy compost from some municipalities, there is sterilized, composted waste from the sewage treatment tanks in there.
Compost can be as complex or as simple as you want, but its free goodness for your garden. There is no reason not to be a good steward of resources, start a compost pile!
Here are some resources that talk about C:N Ratios