Composting 101, for the beginner

Compost is the key for a healthy thriving garden. We cover the how, what, where, and why of composting. Read our discussions in the composting forums.
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Scarecrow
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Post by Scarecrow »

First the composting guidelines above are great! I do agree with others that it is easy. I just started composting in a plastic trash can and have filled it full once and turning every day or every other day. The full can is now below half full and ready to add more greens and browns. It has been interesting seeing this stuff break down.

gixxerific wrote:... Look at the forest floor it is was it is. You don't see anyone fertilizing the forest do you yet it grows with abundance, that is when man can keep his grubby little hands out of it of course.
Nice how-to EG.


So... I can use soil from the forest in my small garden bed?

Not wanting to take this thread sideways but where can I post questions about soil building or soil amending for growing vegetables? I don't see a forum dedicated to soil building.
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Post by applestar »

If you want the end product faster, it would be better if you get a second bin to put the fresh material in. Then when THAT breaks down, mix with the first 1/2 bin full. More precisely, start with two bins of fresh material, then combine into a 3rd bin when they're 1/2 done.

I think we generally do talk about organic soil building this forum. Also in the Organic Veg Gardening Forum when talking about preparing the soil in the veg bed.

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Post by rot »

..
I thought it was a pretty good explanation. I've tried to do just that myself and it's hard. As evidenced in some of the replies the tricky part is covering all the ifs, ands and buts that come up. There are so many variables from climate to materials to size to bin vs no bin.

The best I can do is explain how I do it and maybe toss in a couple of anecdotes on how others have done it quite differently. That and offer the caveat that what works best is what works for you.

Good job in my opinion.

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Post by Halfway »

Scarecrow wrote:First the composting guidelines above are great! I do agree with others that it is easy. I just started composting in a plastic trash can and have filled it full once and turning every day or every other day. The full can is now below half full and ready to add more greens and browns. It has been interesting seeing this stuff break down.

gixxerific wrote:... Look at the forest floor it is was it is. You don't see anyone fertilizing the forest do you yet it grows with abundance, that is when man can keep his grubby little hands out of it of course.
Nice how-to EG.


So... I can use soil from the forest in my small garden bed?

Not wanting to take this thread sideways but where can I post questions about soil building or soil amending for growing vegetables? I don't see a forum dedicated to soil building.


Actually the quote by gixx is a bit off. Whether man's "grubby little hands" are in it or not, all forest composted soil is NOT equal.

The soil in the Pacific Northwest is very moldy, mossy, clumpy, rich, brown, and full of decay, but it is in reality very poor soil as compared to the soil in a natural grassland (Kansas/Iowa?South Dakota). It may look great, but it supports a very distinct ecology that is NOT your garden veggies. If it were, it would produce far more shrubs and deciduous trees as opposed to furs and cedars.

Some soil, despite it's absence from man's effects and despite it's appearence and apparent composting conditions, is not all prime.

The beauty of using multiple greens and browns is the ability to provide a very diverse micro biology and breakdown.

My $.02
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Post by Scarecrow »

Applestar,
I have thought about adding a second bin to use while the first one is cooking. I haven't decided if I want to make it a tumbler like the first one or just roll it on the ground.

I'll create a new post here about soil building or amending.

Thanks!




Halfway,
That was my thinking myself but it sure does look and smell good! LOL!
For my area it would grow pine trees really good with a few oak thrown in for good measure. :)

Thanks!
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Post by Halfway »

scarecrow...and it feels like walking on a sponge as well!!!
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Post by JordanRHughes »

I just wanted to say thanks for the posts.... :D

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Post by sceleste54 »

I found your posting very helpful and easy to follow..
thanks EG !

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Post by engineeredgarden »

I'm glad that it was useful information to some - that was the intention. :-)

*For the record, I have 6 pallet bins, and tried the composting in stages thing, move one pile to the next, etc. I always end up just filling all 6 with ingredients, mainly becuase of greed, I guess...hehe.

EG

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Post by tomf »

I have what I call my learning bin working and with what I have read in the compost forum it is doing all the things talked about. I put non-meat kitchen waste, lawn trimmings pine, sawdust and some paper waste. I think the compost bin I got is about 80 gallons, this will not produce nearly enough compost for my needs. I am thinking of going bigger and getting manure, lawn clippings that I have tons of and sawdust. What I want is one that I can scoop it up with the tractor bucket to turn it and put on the garden. I see some very large compost piles but I read here there is an optimum size, so I am not sure how big I can make it.
Any and all advice welcome, please.

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Post by rainbowgardener »

Here's a couple threads we had about large scale composting:

http://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/v ... ost#127597

http://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/v ... ost#141650

Not that I've ever done large scale composting, but from what I've read, there's an optimum height and width, but you can make a row as long as you want. I think if you just make the pile bigger (i.e. higher and wider), the stuff on the outside gets too far from the action in the middle and maybe everything gets kind of compacted. You would need to turn more often to make up for all that.
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Post by tomf »

Thank you Rainbow I read through the links, I like what gixxerific said as I can get truck loads of tree trimmings to add to it.

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Post by tomf »

I read just about every thing written in the compost forum and I have been putting all kinds of stuff in the bin. I felt it was uncool to send stuff to the dump or into the septic tank via the garbage disposal that I can recycle into some thing I can make my soil better with.
At first I had to many greens but I think thanks to the tips here I have the right combination of carbon to nitrogen. I think I may be able to manage it on a larger scale.

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Re: Composting 101, for the beginner

Post by KoryLGriffin »

engineeredgarden wrote:As is common with most first-time composters, my first year of backyard composting was a complete disaster. I tried it in a barrel that was rolled around on the ground every week or so, and all I ended up with was a gooey mess inside. The greatest lessons in life are learned from failures, but it's important to not give up when efforts fall short of success. With a few years of frustrating composting cycles now under my belt, I can proudly say that I can compost - and do it pretty well.

Now, i'd like to share what I have learned about the process with anyone composting for the first time.

Terms frequently used in composting are:

Browns - This is simply a source of carbon, and can be from all kinds of sources - paper, straw, wood, fallen leaves, etc.

Greens - This is simply a source of nitrogen, and can be from all kinds of sources, too - grass clippings, UCG's, vegetable and fruit scraps, dry dog food, dry molasses, and alfalfa meal or pellets, etc.

UCG's - Used coffee grounds


The reading material concerning composting education is confusing to most, and even I had a difficult time understanding what it all meant. I mean, it seems that everyone has their own idea on how to do it, and most even get way too technical when discussing the subject. It isn't rocket science.....We are simply trying our best to duplicate what naturally happens in nature - but at a much more accelerated rate.

Fact: A pile that has a C:N ratio of 30:1 is best. This is supported by every agricultural institution, but what does it mean?

It simply means that if you construct a pile that has ingredients that (combined) measures 30 parts carbon and 1 part nitrogen, it has the ideal proportions of browns and greens for decomposition to take place.

How does a person achieve this combination?
Everything has a C:N value, and here are some values of ingredients....

Leaves (fallen, brown in color) - 50:1
Paper - 400:1
Grass clippings - 15:1
Fruit scraps - 35:1
Vegetable scraps - 20:1
UCG's - 20:1

*Mix ingredients by volume, not weight.....

If you combine equal parts of leaves and grass clippings, the overall C:N ratio would be 32:1

- leaves and UCG's, the overall C:N ratio would be 35:1

- paper and grass clippings, the overall C:N ratio would be 207:1

If paper is your only resource of browns, you will need to add TONS of greens to achieve an overall mixture of 30:1. It would be something like -

1 part paper, 20 parts grass clippings - for an overall combined C:N ratio of 33:1
*Needless to say, paper is not a good choice of browns......

Chop, shred, or reduce the size of any ingredient added to the pile, because this gives the microbes more surface area to work with, and also increases boimass compression.

Build a pile that is between 3' x 3' x 3' and 4' x 4' x 4', because as the core temperature of the pile heats up, it needs an insulator to keep the heat from dissipating into the atmosphere. The outer crust of the pile serves this purpose......Also, a pile larger than 4' x 4' x 4' won't let air reach the microbes in the center. No air in the center means you'll be using the anaerobic microbes for decomposition - which is slow, stinky, and not desirable at all. Instead, you want the pile to be no bigger than 4ft cubed, so that oxygen can reach the core, which is called aerobic composting. Aerobic microbes work very efficiently, and produce lots of heat as the greens and browns are broken down. So, that's the reason why size of pile matters............

Also, the pile has to be watered occasionally - but don't over do it....I use rainwater for mine, because municipal water will kill the microbes that do all the work for you. A healthy population of microbes is the key to rapid decompostion of a compost pile, and it's important to keep them fed and watered.

Once the ingredients and moisture level are correct, the pile will heat up. I like for mine to be between 130 and 150 degrees, and use a compost thermometer to measure the internal core temperature at least once per week. Once the temp falls below 110 degrees, turn the pile and add some water. If you have some greens to add, throw them in there too. Things will heat back up again in a day or two. If the temperature is between 130-150, don't disturb it - let the microbes do their thing....

Obviously, the best time to compost is during warm weather, but it's not always possible to have enough greens/browns on hand to do this at this time of year. I've found it best to accumulate bagged leaves in the fall, then build a new pile as grass clippings become available during warm weather. Doing the opposite is not suggested, because the grass clippings stored in bags clumps really bad, and must be broken up throughout the entire composting cycle. For the record, it takes ALOT of leaves to amount to anything.

I hope this post was helpful to anyone that takes the time to read it.

EG


Thanks a bunch...I did know about the coffee beans though--I thought they attracted rats?
Have a great day...

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8) I am a noob
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Post by tomf »

Will my compost keep working in the winter?

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Post by engineeredgarden »

Yes, but at a much slower rate. Just keep feeding it with nitrogen sources, add water, and keep it turned, and it will continue to work. I compost year-round - although during warm weather is much faster than cold.

EG

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Post by rainbowgardener »

Depends on your winter. Here my compost pile freezes solid for at least all of January and isn't doing anything. But it's ok. I keep adding stuff to it all winter, kitchen scraps covered with fall leaves, and the added stuff freezes too. But as soon as it warms up it all starts working again.
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Post by tomf »

We do not get but a week or so of a hard freeze at my home in Oregon and it most likely will not freeze the pile. Our weather has much to do with elevation and the weatherman talks about how low the snow level is. I am at 1200’ so I get more snow than Portland but most of the time the snow level is at 3000’ or more. Mt. Hood gets 200â€

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Post by tomf »

I put my coffee grounds in the compost, will the finished compost keep my plants up at night?

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Post by tomf »

Ok that one was silly. :oops: :wink: :lol:

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Post by rainbowgardener »

Yup! :) :D
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Post by engineeredgarden »

Tom - hehe.....UCG'S are probably my favorite thing to add, because it smells really good!

EG

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Post by Solucion »

I give up. Too complicated.
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Post by Halfway »

Solucion wrote:I give up. Too complicated.


:shock:
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Post by rainbowgardener »

Solucion wrote:I give up. Too complicated.


Solucion - welcome to the Forum. Tell us what seems too complicated, I bet we can help.

Here's my lazy gardener composting:

1) throw everything compostable in my wire bin as it comes along
2) cover greens with browns (I keep some browns, like bags of fall leaves or a bale of straw in the summer, handy for the purpose)
3) if dry enough to water the garden, water the compost pile

that's it!

4) about three times a year, take all the uncomposted stuff off the top of the pile, down to where the earthworms are, to be the bottom of a new pile. What's left is lovely compost!
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Post by engineeredgarden »

I'd like to second what halfway said....

EG

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Post by gixxerific »

Solucion wrote:I give up. Too complicated.


Too complicated how about this.

1. Find a good place for a pile, possibly build a cage of some sort.
2. Add everything organic you can in any order and walk away.

Pretty simple if you want it to be. 8)

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Post by SkyKero »

tomf -->

don't wait until fall to make your pile -- you can start now!! ...
You probably have everything you need -- if you don't have leaves you can use newspaper or cardboard or napkins...

Well... I think so anyway .. I collected tooo many leaves last year.. heheh... but I do put my napkins and coffee filters in and they go "poof" and disappear.

I am super lazy about my compost -- and I am always pleasantly surprised of what i get after a while :D

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Post by toxcrusadr »

Pile it up and let it rot.

Compost happens.

8)
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Composting 101, for the beginner

Post by Alfred »

My experience with composting is it needs plenty of air,it should be kept moist but not wet and also i give it some lime which contains calcium that is an essential plant nutrient.
Grow food that you can harvest every single day of the year, no matter where you live.

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composting

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I used to live in Portland, OR. That's the first time I saw a compost bin. They had all the warms and everything, it was great. I had a window bin till now, cause we lived in an apartment but now that we FINALLY have a yard composting will be number one on my list. Thank you for all the info!
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Post by pickupguy07 »

How does a person achieve this combination?
Everything has a C:N value, and here are some values of ingredients....

Leaves (fallen, brown in color) - 50:1
Paper - 400:1
Grass clippings - 15:1
Fruit scraps - 35:1
Vegetable scraps - 20:1
UCG's - 20:1

*Mix ingredients by volume, not weight.....

If you combine equal parts of leaves and grass clippings, the overall C:N ratio would be 32:1

- leaves and UCG's, the overall C:N ratio would be 35:1

- paper and grass clippings, the overall C:N ratio would be 207:1

If paper is your only resource of browns, you will need to add TONS of greens to achieve an overall mixture of 30:1. It would be something like -

1 part paper, 20 parts grass clippings - for an overall combined C:N ratio of 33:1
*Needless to say, paper is not a good choice of browns......


Nice info.. Needless to say that we all have different sources for our compost at different times of the year.
One thing I wanted to ak is about "how" you figure the C:N ratio. I tried several different ways based on your examples.
Could you pass along how I can figure the ratio depending what I have on hand. For example I can get 100 lb of used coffee ground per DAY... but at this time of year very few browns.. only newspapers mostly.

Needless to say I'll have to look over the greens/browns list and see what else I can come up with for browns.

Couple other things.. I see paper is listed at 400:1. Is regular 'paper' and newpaper figured the same. I know that regular 'copy paper' is a lot thicker than newspaper.?? Curious if the ratio was different.

Finally. I know sometimes people get referred to this link..
http://compost.css.cornell.edu/OnFarmHa ... taba1.html
I have no idea how to figure out what I am seeing... anyone know where I might find a list like you posted above. If someone tells me how to figure out the C:N ratio and the list of items I could probably figure out a decent mixture to keep the pile going with what I have available.
Life is great..... but if you get lemons - compost them :-)
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Post by cynthia_h »

First of all, let me apologize. Such a long passage (the ratios) from an unattributed source should have raised a moderator's antennae when it was posted, and it did not.

I have just performed a limited Internet search on the ratios. You really do NOT want to calculate these yourself. One source is this one, from the University of Idaho extension service; other detailed C:N lists can be found in the lists and links referred to in the extended threads you've been to and through already, as well as others in the Composting Forum. I believe that, elsewhere, a "rough and ready" guideline of 2:1 is provided, and that is volume of Cs to volume of Ns, not ratios or anything else.

I haven't seen any postings from the OP of this thread since last fall. I understand when people in cold-winter zones take up other activities in the winter, but I'm a little concerned about this OP in particular. His home is (was?) in one of the areas of our country hard hit by the tornadoes a few weeks ago.

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Post by rainbowgardener »

Personally, I have never calculated a C:N ratio and I have good compost every year. It isn't rocket science. You want basically some balance of wet/ dry, greens/ browns, but if it is off a little bit one way or the other, it will still compost. I use a little more brown than green by volume, by eye ball. But as noted sometimes of the year that is easier than others, so the C:N ratio of what I add does change a bit through the seasons. As long as the fall leaves I collect last, it's not hard to keep plenty of browns. Last year after the fall leaves were gone (the next summer!), I bought a bale of straw, but I wasn't real pleased with how well it broke down (or didn't) so I may try something different this summer.

But just eyeball it. If the browns aren't breaking down, add more greens/ air/ moisture. If it is wet and slimy or doesn't smell good, add more browns and mix. Nature will take care of it!! :)
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Post by pickupguy07 »

HI Cynthia
Thanks so much for the reply..
All the folks here are so kind and helpful...
The link you provided is a wealth of information. All very interesting stuff.

In doing other research I did find a few tidbiots about figuring the C:N ratios. Of course finding out what the amounts to figure can be difficult.
I'll post what I found and someone can correct me if I am wrong.
Basically I read that you take the ratios... add them together, and devide by thye number of items.
For example lets say you have 1 part leaves (50:1) and two parts UCG (20:1) SO you take 50+20+20 = 90 devide by three items 90/3 = 30

Obviously I assume the more varity the better - I am guessing you wouldn't want to make compost out of just weeds and wood ashes... even though the ratio comes up to about 28.

I have access to 400 - 500 lb coffee grounds per week (maybe more)... mostly available rigt now is newspaper. Paper had about 175, and UCG about 20. so to use these tow items I'd have to use 9 parts UCG to one part paper -- and I have no clue how long it would take to break down (heard paper breaks down slow)..
So you can see why I have questions. I have some items in great supply, but few of many items util fall comes when I can collect leaves.
THANKS
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Post by rainbowgardener »

Agree that the more variety the better. We generally say no more than 10% of your pile one ingredient. Part of what makes compost such good stuff is that by the time you have a big variety of ingredients contributing to it, your finished compost will contain all the nutrients, micronutrients, trace minerals and whatever that your plants could need, plus the appropriate micro-organisms to help process the nutrients into forms the plants can use.
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Coffee grounds and newspaper - sounds like you want worms

Post by rot »

..
Isn't newspaper & coffee grounds about ideal for raising worms?

Yes newspaper is slow to breakdown. Run it through a chipper with some other stuff so it gets shredded well and then mixed well with some other stuff or you'll get clumping.

I once made a bin of 50 percent coffee grounds. It was a dark gooey mess and I worked it for months to turn into something somewhat workable. Coffee grounds if not mixed and spread well through out the pile will smoother a lot of the air.

to sense
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Post by pickupguy07 »

yeah. Iam figuring I am able to get too much of one thing, and not enough of another..
Even if I did know all of the C:N rations of what I put in the bin,.. you know you always add 'other' stuff... old garden veggies, table scraps,.. so that can skew the numbers

also I was curious.. I know it shows paper at a certin C:N ratio.. I assume that is 'whole'. I am guessing if it is schredded that number goes down some... I am hoping (would anyone know what that number may be.??)

My pile is just a newbie.. lol. My first bin ever and maybe a foot tall.
Life is great..... but if you get lemons - compost them :-)
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Surface Area

Post by rot »

..
If you shred the paper it won't change the C:N ratio any but it will increase the surface area exposed to air and bacteria. Like a fire, the greater the exposed surface area, the faster the process.

You want to mix the nitrogen materials into the vicinity of the carbon materials because the bacteria draws on the nitrogen to digest the carbons.

I use what I have on hand and if I can, I adjust things as I go along. Mine is more of a digesting process than a compost producing operation. I will build my bins most of the time slowly and just keep adding things until the bin gets full and I start another while the previous bin finishes digesting and reduces. I have some I turn infrequently and a couple I don't turn at all.

The hot process gets you compost faster and kills off seeds and pathogens. It takes more work because you are turning it frequently.

Ideally in the hot process you monitor the temperature and just after the peak temperature starts to decline you turn the pile and monitor the temperature for the next peak. The temperatures decline of course but the turning still gets oxygen into process keeps things moving at lower temperatures because different bacteria are in action then. Without monitoring the temperatures, if you turn once a week, I think you'll find that plenty. Turning also gives you a look-see so you can tell if it's working or not or maybe if it needs water.

In the hot process you want to build the pile up all at once. I can get 17 cu ft going up to 150 F. Once got 160 F. Often it's at 140 F when I bother. It's a little easier to get the higher temperatures when you make the bin a little larger approximating a cu yd or 27 cu ft.

Mix some of this and some of that and see what happens. Adjust things as you go along. If it's done in two months time, you got a good mix and you've been turning regularly and adding just the right amount of moisture. If it takes a long time maybe you've got some stuff that doesn't break down that quickly or too much water or not enough water or not enough air. You're looking at a lot of variables from climate to materials to energy put into it. Slow and dry means to many carbons, smelly and wet means too many nitrogens typically.

Observe and adjust. Don't stress over it.
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