How do I start a compost pile?

  Added by: snoofer  Last edited by: snoofer  Viewed: 647 times  Rated by 16 users: 9.20/10
Contributed by: Grego
Additional info by: Erliquin

What is composting?
The composting process involves the decomposition of organic material by bacteria, mixtures of nitrogen-rich materials (Greens) with carbon-rich materials (Browns).

How is compost used?
Compost can be applied in a number of different ways.

  • Mixed in as an amendment to topsoil
  • Top dressed for slow release and mulching benefit,
  • Organic "tea" as a root feed or foliar spray.

    Some composting benefits:
  • Reduction in diseases and wilts
  • A slow release of nutrients,
  • Moisture conservation.
  • Sterilization
  • Promotes a greater diversity of soil organisms

    Composting Basics
    Hot or Cold. Slow or Fast. Pile it and Let it Rot or Turn and Tend Regularly. The options are endless. This is the method that is most commonly used and is one of the most foolproof.

    Pile in your ingredients and nature takes it from there. The amount of care and work you put into the process determines your results somewhat, but even if you do nothing time will eventually reduce the pile to compost.

    A bin size of 3' x 3' x3' is said to be the minimum to get things to heat up for the best results. A hot pile is NOT required for the materials to break down. Heat does speed up decomposition, but requires more frequent turning and water. Microorganisms cause breakdown at temperatures between 50F and 158F. One reason for hotter temperatures is to kill any weed seeds that may be present.

    Moisture and air are also necessary for composting. The hotter the pile, the more often it should be turned over to let air in. Heat dries out the pile quicker. In hot & dry climates you may want to wrap something around open compost piles. Covering the pile is a personal choice but a top of some kind will prevent rapid drying out of the pile and help to reduce leaching out of the nutrients. The location of a compost pile in sunny or shady areas of a yard does not really matter. The heat build up is provided by the microbial activity going on inside.

    Common composting containers:
    What is the best “bin” or container to compost in? The first question should be - what do you want to do?

    Look at what materials you want to get rid of or have access to, and how much compost you want or need. Once you know what materials you have available or can scrounge you can decide on what type of bin is appropriate.

    A variety of manufactured bins are available; many do not work any better than cheap do-it-yourself types. There are many informational sites that have detailed drawings for building any type of setup you might need.

    Pallet Bin
    The cheap way to get started could be a square bin made of salvaged wooden palettes wired or screwed together. Pallets are easy to come by and make sturdy containment areas.

    Wire Mesh Bin
    Round bins made of hardware cloth are also very simple, cheap and effective. Diameters of three to five feet are best. Just get some sturdy utility fence material and form it into a cylinder. Use some zip ties or just twisted wire to hold the ends together. You can line the inside with breathable landscaping fabric or even plastic sheeting to help retain the moisture. Fold the top edge over and secure it with clothespins or binder clips or even staples.

    Rotating Tumbler
    Tumblers advertise quick and easy composting, but often beginners have problems with them. For best results, tumblers require filling, and carefully measuring the moisture and green/brown ingredients. They are a poor choice to start with unless you are willing to devote considerable effort to monitoring the inputs. After some experience you may choose to add a tumbler as an addition to your efforts.

    Odors and animal pests are often a source of worry for beginners but proper understanding can eliminate problems. A proper balance of browns mixed in with the greens will keep the pile from smelling sour.

    What should I add to my compost?

    How much stuff should you put in?

    Well I would say as much as you can. Put about a 50/50 green/brown mix to get a well rounded compost. When a compost pile is hot it is just the bacteria and such decomposing the materials. This is a good thing but is not necessary. You might want to turn your pile a little bit less so the bacteria can have a chance to decompose all of the available materials.

    Should you add water?

    Yes, as long as the pile is not "soaked" but "evenly moist". When the pile heats up some of the moisture will be lost, so you might need to keep it moist.

    What about Worms
    What type of worms you should use? The answer is, red wigglers or night crawlers. Both of these worms are very abundant through bait and tackle shops, gardening centers, and gardening catalogs. Although the compost pile may become "hot" (most of the heat will come from the middle part of the pile), this should not be a problem to the worms, since they prefer the bottom of the pile. Periodically adding water to the pile also keeps the pile at a nice temperature for the worms. You can add worms straight to the pile.

    (erliquin) Worm farms are different in design to composting bins, tumblers and heaps. It's a different ball game to standard composting which can be aerobic composting i.e. as in tumblers or anaerobic composting i.e. as in solid walled and lid fastened bins.

    They're about building up numbers of worms to veritable waste gobbling armies and delivering a steady and easily harvested volume of worm castings and/or worm castings tea.

    Water to a worm farm is best as a flood every 4 weeks or so. It mimics the cycle of a good down pour and that means the worms all surface to avoid being drowned. This can be observed after any thunderstorm in the garden.

    Worms of course breed if they come in contact with each other, so when they hit the surface they have an orgy. A couple of months later, many new worms are to be seen. The more immediate gain is of course the commensurable return of worm castings tea to the volume it was flooded with. Obviously flooding too regularly will result in an anaerobic compressed and water saturated profile, that's deadly to worms because they respire.

    Generally speaking, organic kitchen wastes such as vegetable peels along with left over macaroni (spaghetti, noodles ect), boiled and cooled to room temp rice along with left over stale cereals soaked in water and again the same with pre-soaked and shredded newspaper, will all give the sufficient moisture required in a worm farm without additional water needed. After all, they're approx. 90% water by weight. Even without a periodic flooding worm castings tea will collect in abundance. In short most of the weight in waste is simply water.

    On the whole, a worm farm should be a steady temperature and a cool one at that. I've found good worm activity at temps that range from 15C to 25C. Spring and Autumn temps are optimum, with winter slowing their feeding and their breeding. Summer can mean a population die-off if it clocks over 35C in the farm IME. Don't park it in the sun. Easy enough to tell, just leave a thermometer in the waste and come back 15 mins later to check. If too hot, flood it and don't add more food as vermicomposting is not standard composting. Excessive wastes in a worm farm in summer will crank the heat. I'm not concerned about temps on the whole, it runs as is and runs ok.

    I also find it improves your population by adding "wild" worms (red wrigglers or tigers) to your farm. Easy enough to find in the garden if you use hay as your mulch of choice which is the mulch of choice in permaculture. IMO wild worms tend to have vigour. Other people may differ in view, but this is based IME on worm populations now over a decade old that have benefited from wild additions. Further to the point, you can cop population die-offs due to too low a pH and due too to heat. Some seasons will play havoc i.e. cold winters or hot summers. Keep the pH close to neutral with a dusting of dolomite and then flood. Just part of the monthly schedule. You'll have to do that if you use run citrus and potato waste.

    Worms reproduce quickly when grouped in close contact mass. You're after fast reproduction rates, hence the floods to cause super congestions of the population periodically and therefore increase the breed rate. Fast breed rates = more biomass eating the waste = fast output of castings and tea.

    When I spoke of using "wild worms", I'm speaking about getting red wrigglers or tigers and I also said, if you run a garden with hay, you will have them and abundant. Using anything else will fail, soil worms (greys and pinks) will die out on a diet that's 100% organic. You will over the years with your worm crew get die-outs for a number of reasons (things can go wrong) and topping up your numbers free from the wild populations in your garden is good option. I've done it past.

    As for adding worms to compost, if the compost pile is cool they'll survive. But IME, I've never had an outdoor compost pile cool as I speed it up with high N manure to break the carbon materials down. It steams in winter. Fast break down. Add worms into that inferno of ammonia and they'll die. You can only add them with success to the lower materials.

    Adding Soil
    Also it is a good idea to add some soil to the green/brown mix. There is not a set amount, but I would say 1/3 - 1/5 of the pile should be soil. If I had a 20 gallon bin full of greens/browns, I would add 6-4 gallons of soil.

    (Erliquin) It's also a good idea to put a soil layer of 3 to 4 inches on top of a compost heap in i.e. say a cinder block walled format, so ammonia doesn't readily escape and therefore lose valuable nitrogen. If you want some info on that, David Hodges, Natural Farming & Gardening in Australia is a good source.

    BTW, a side line to the ^above that works in creating rich soil fast out of poor soil is burying hay bales side by side. Simply excavate off the top 4 inches of poor soil, lay the bales out side by side until all the zone is complete. Then remove the twines (most important as forking a garden later with twines in the ground is near impossible) and then cover in the soil you excavated. In 12 months, you will have a foot deep of top quality black soil teeming in worms and other soil life, ready to give you power results. A single hay bale at $6 buried in the ground will in 12 months give you thousands of reds or tigers worms for free.

    If you want to increase the soil depth zone, fork it into smaller zone. This could lend to the guerilla growers or folks who like to save their backs, where planning in advance coupled with light weight bales is better value than lugging in imported soil. You can make it on site with nothing more than rainfall and time. Worms show up by themselves.

    Good browns
    Black and white newsprint (preferably shredded - goes quicker - and preferably printed w/ soy-based ink - no heavy metals...)
    Brown paper bags from grocery store
    Torn/shredded cardboard: brown boxes, brown packing tubes, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, tubes egg cartons (avoid printed, glossy or refined looking boxes, etc: cereal boxes would be bad, generic brown shipping boxes good)
    Aged twigs: break 'em up as small as you can
    Aged wood chips (smaller and older the better)
    Sawdust from untreated lumber (check with a lumber yard)
    Dried grass: either mow and dry or rake up dead grass from the lawn
    Dead leaves (though not those from diseased plants)

    Grass clippings: These will mat together, so mix well with the browns as you add to the pile)
    Plant material: Don't add plant material from diseased plants as some of the diseases may survive the composting process.
    Coffee grounds: Your own or call the local coffee house/diner to collect theirs.
    Kitchen scraps: Very seedy items need to be composted in hot piles to avoid having many volunteer plants sprouting. Also anything that will root such as potato skins and onions unless they're very finely chopped or mashed in the processor.
    Cornhusks are good greens. Many grocery stores will put a garbage can by their corn displays; this "garbage" is often free for the asking.
    Barnyard animal manures: Cow, horse, chicken, goat, sheep, and rabbit are good. Again, bury these well to avoid unwanted visitors (especially flies...). NEVER use dog, cat, or human manure/feces as they may contain pathogens or diseases that could be harmful.
    Green "manures": Alfalfa hay, vetch, winter rye, several legumes and clovers are good sources of Nitrogen either as cover crops for the garden (during winter) or cut and put in the pile.

    Some "Don't Ever Add to Compost" items
    Never to add dog, cat, or human solid wastes.
    Greases, oils and fats are not good.
    Ashes from barbecue charcoals. Wood ashes are OK in SMALL amounts but BBQ coals like Kingsford contain many bad things
    Seeds: Though some seeds are killed (or sprout and then are killed) in the composting process, don't test your luck.
    Diseased plant parts: Several organisms which cause disease can survive the composting process
    Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides

    If the aim is waste management, and the resulting compost is simply used on ornamentals, not Cannabis nor food crops, then point 1 & point 2 can be done. You can even set up an outdoor worm farm to specifically waste manage the cat & dog shit problem. Worms eat shit pure and raw and with gusto.

    As for food waste oils and fats, my main way of dealing with that is to sprinkle it lightly over mulched hay zones in the garden and it does break down. Beats putting it in a milk carton to the garbage bin where it will ultimately end up producing methane gas in landfill anaerobic conditions - a gas 100 times more "greenhouse effect" than Co2.

    Other Tips:

    When do I know when it is ready?

    Well most of the matter will be a dark, rich soil. Now not all things decompose as fast as others. Vegetable matter will decompose before twigs will.

    Can I speed the process up?

    Yes, you can add worms to the pile. Worms eat several times their own body weight a day, and they also provide worm castings. There are some "compost accelerators" on the market, but I do not have any experience with them. I think once you add worms to the pile you will notice a dramatic increase in the output of your pile.

    You can only add worms to a compost heap in the lower tiers where it is cool and already composted. Adding worms to above layers will either kill them in heat or ammonia. Made that mistake

    How else can I use compost?

    Well you can add the compost straight with the soil. Compost is a pretty "light" fertilizer and you may want to add some other ferts. with it. You can include bone and blood meal, bat and sea bird guanos, or even ground up kelp to make the soil more complete.

    Compost Maintenance
    Since not all things decompose at the same time you may need to "sift" it. All you need is some 1in. x 1in. screen and some 2x4s. Dump or shovel the pile onto the "sifter".

    Push back and forth on the composted material. All of the compost will fall through, while the non-composted material will stay on top of the screen. Dump the non-composted material back into the pile so it can decompose. Do this until you have done the complete pile.

    I would use a fork and not a shovel when moving compost. If there is a worm population in the pile, you don't want to chop the population up. As a side note: Contrary to popular belief, worms do not double in numbers if chopped. Meaning, chopping up worms slows down their reproduction rate. Besides, compost can often contain a lot of roughage (material still in decomposition) and it's hard to get a shovel into it.
  •   Last modified: 15:27 - Mar 04, 2003 

    faq:1450 "How do I start a compost pile?"