All About Composting
There's more than one way to do it
Depending on the materials you’re composting and personal preferences, you may be using a completely different strategy than others. As long as you understand the basic concepts of composting – heat, air, and moisture – you’ll be all set for success.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
Pick the right method for you
Many companies now have compost holding units for sale and they vary vastly in shape, material, and concept. Some are offering indoor units, as well as outdoor containers. These options are made specifically for composters using kitchen and garden scraps.
Turning units are popular amongst composters who prefer a contained area and understand the importance of aeration. These can be rotated with a handle and can be fully enclosed. Typically, turning units are more expensive than other options.
The almighty heap of compost is always a great option for those using manure for composting. Kitchen scraps shouldn’t be used in heaps to avoid attracting pests. The University of Illinois Extension recommends a heap about five feet wide and three feet tall.
Units can be easily built at home for composting, as well. If making somewhat of a pit in your yard, be sure to avoid treated lumber. If making your own, also consider portable units that are able to be moved around the yard and have aerating sides made of basic materials like chicken wire, hardware cloth, snow fencing, etc.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
It's all about the ratio
Doesn’t matter if you’re using garden matter, kitchen scraps, or livestock manure, composting needs a specific ratio of carbon to nitrogen to break down properly. A 25:1 or 30:1 ratio is ideal.
Most anything that is fresh or juicy is higher in nitrogen. Any human or animal product - such as hair, feathers, and manure - is typically a great source of nitrogen, too. Carbon comes from any dry, old, or woody vegetable or plant tissue. Composting additives are available to substitute for certain missing compost materials.
Don’t forget that oxygen is necessary, too!Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
Aeration is essential
Without oxygen, it is very tough to successfully compost anything. The whole concept of turning compost units is to encourage fluffing up materials to allow air to get between layers. That air helps to both insulate the contents and to react with the nitrogen and carbon to encourage decomposition.
Piles should be turned often to speed up the process. Piles need at least two weeks to heat up in their inner layers, so turning them every two to four weeks is the most efficient choice.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
Composting matter may be in a container or it may not be, but either way there is a certain temperature range that speeds up the process. If contents are anywhere from 90 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the optimum composting temperature has been reached. When temperatures fall below 90 degrees the process is significantly slowed, and going above 140 degrees nearly stops the process altogether.
Piles or stashes of composting materials will insulate themselves if left un-compressed and properly hydrated.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
Moisture is crucial
Without water, decomposer organisms are unable to live, thus halting the composting process. Without water, anaerobic bacteria can take over and produce unwanted smells.
Ideally, a pile will have a moisture content of about 40 to 60 percent. A pile should be dampened when turned to reach that level if it is looking dry or not receiving any water.
Matter should be damp when touched and should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
Smaller is better when it comes to composed scraps. Shredding or chopping up larger hunks of material before throwing it in the compost pile or bin is a good idea. There’s no need to pulverize anything, but the final product should be free of any recognizable matter and larger items take longer to decompose. Having more surface area will lead to a faster decomposition process and getting more surface area is obtained by breaking materials up into smaller pieces.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
Facts to keep in mind
You’ve got a lot of matter decomposing, so an unpleasant smell is not uncommon. If you do happen to sense a displeasing ammonia scent, your compost has too much nitrogen and should have carbon added to it.
There’s no need to constantly be packing down your compost pile or container. There should be space between particles for air, so avoid the urge to compress materials.
Microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, and macroorganisms, like earthworms and spiders, are all part of the composting process. Between the two, matter is broken down, digested, stirred, and more.
Some materials aren’t beneficial to compost and can actually hinder the process. For more information on tricky compostable materials, check out this link.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
The final product
When compost is ready to be used, it should have an earthy smell and be a rich brown color. The compost should be of a crumbly consistency. There should be no recognizable materials, since everything but stems should be completely broken down if compost is truly ready.
Depending on conditions and whether or not the matter was in a container, compost can take anywhere from a few months to multiple years.
For more composting information, visit the University of Illinois Extension’s Composting Central.Date Published: June 4, 2014Date Updated: March 1, 2019
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