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rainbowgardener
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composting basics

We have a decent composting 101 thread here: https://www.helpfulgardener.com/forum/vi ... hp?t=29022 and we have the greens/browns thread at the top of this Forum.

But since the 101 got a bit long and technical and we've been getting a lot of composting questions lately, I thought I would do this.

A compost pile is essentially a living organism and like all living organisms it needs three things: air, water, food. If you provide all those, it will compost, and everything else is details.

Air means air needs to circulate through the pile. So you don't want it in a tightly enclosed bin. Wire bins or pallets are great. Plastic is OK as long as it has enough air holes. You don't want to let your pile pack down. Having a few sticks in it helps, or run pipe with holes down in to it, or just punch some holes with a long stick. Mixing/ turning it occasionally helps keep it aerated and loosened up.

Composting is basically done by living organisms, macro and micro organisms that break down the compostables in to usable nutrients. All living organisms need water. So your pile needs to stay damp ("like a wrung out sponge"). It does not want to be wet/soggy/ waterlogged, because that tends to exclude air. When it is dry enough to water my garden, I water my compost pile.

Food means a diversity of nutrients. What you get out of the compost pile (finished compost) all comes from what you put in to it. So if you want your finished composed to be a good balanced soil amendment that provides all the different nutrients your plants need, including trace / micronutrients, minerals, etc., you have to provide them by putting a wide range of different stuff in your pile. Basically it has to include "greens" (soft/moist, nitrogen rich) and "browns" (hard/dry, carbon rich), which is where the greens/browns sticky comes in. But it should also include lots of different nutrients. So in general no more than 10% of your pile should be any one ingredient. The different ingredients need to mingle. Layering works and again mixing helps.

To work well, a pile needs a good volume of stuff, more or less a cubic yard/meter. And the stuff needs to be contained, so that it stays piled up. In my yard, it has to be contained in a bin that has a top, or the raccoons and other critters make off with the kitchen scraps, before they ever get a chance to compost.

And that's IT! If you really want your pile to heat up, you need to work harder at the mixing turning. That's most important to people who put manures in their piles. The manure really helps the pile heat up, but it also makes it really important that it do so, because the manure can contain pathogens. I never put manure in my pile and so it doesn't usually heat up very much. But it still breaks down and produces nice finished compost, so I don't care.

There's lots more detail you can get in to, if you want to get technical. Preferably don't put weed seeds in your pile, especially if your pile doesn't run hot enough to cook them. As long as you pull your weeds before they go to seed, it isn't an issue. The composting work is done by micro-organisms, so getting a pile started, it helps to seed it with some handfuls of good rich soil. Doesn't take much. Your pile should sit on the ground, so that earthworms can come in to it. Other wise, no additives are needed. Don't let people sell you fancy "compost starter," the handful of soil does the same thing.

So that is all you need to get started: a bin/cage, a range of different organic stuff, including greens and browns from a variety of sources, air and water. Go forth and compost! It really is the best thing you can do for your garden.
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applestar
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Re: composting basics

This is a great idea. I've made it a sticky -- please add your expertise and info to this thread since there are different styles and methods that work for different people... and meaningful questions can be answered here, but the thread may be monitored for clarity and brevity so it will become a good resource. :wink:
Learning never ends because we can share what we've learned. And in sharing our collective experiences, we gain deeper understanding of what we learned.

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PollinatingPA
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Re: composting basics

Nice, this is a very comprehensive introduction to the wonderful world of composting that is easy to understand.

Awesome, thanks, 5 stars!

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ElizabethB
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Re: composting basics

Rainbow - as always your posts are concise and knowledgeable. Thank you. Unfortunately I neglected my garden an compost bins since last fall. My garden is a weed lot and my compost bins are filled with fresh greens and browns. Will not be ready for use for several months even with the addition of cured manure.

Put a sign on my butt that says "Kick Me".

Love compost and so mad at myself for not taking care of my bins over winter.

Thank you for your very informative post.

You are the BOMB!
Elizabeth - or Your Majesty

Living and growing in Lafayette, La.

When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant. ~Author Unknown

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rainbowgardener
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Re: composting basics

awww .... :hehe: So glad you are back, Elizabeth.
Twitter account I manage for local Sierra Club: https://twitter.com/CherokeeGroupSC Facebook page I manage for them: https://www.facebook.com/groups/65310596576/ Come and find me and lots of great information, inspiration

toxcrusadr
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Re: composting basics

Would it be a good idea to post links to other composting tutorials or basic info? I might have one or two.
Tox

Meme
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Re: composting basics

Thank you rainbowgardener.

I have got a compost bin, and had looked around on the internet for what to use and what not to use, but nothing as informative as all you have put here. It will certainly help me so much.
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rainbowgardener
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Re: composting basics

toxcrusadr wrote:Would it be a good idea to post links to other composting tutorials or basic info? I might have one or two.
Somehow, I missed this reply, but yes....
Twitter account I manage for local Sierra Club: https://twitter.com/CherokeeGroupSC Facebook page I manage for them: https://www.facebook.com/groups/65310596576/ Come and find me and lots of great information, inspiration

JeffNev
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Re: composting basics

I had noticed my compost drying out a few times, great idea, I shall give it a light sprinkling! That being said, I imagine as soon as I do it will pour it down!

Jeff

Seedpakit
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Re: composting basics

I thought this was a good and informative read, I love composting, and creating lead mold, (a different subject, I know.) I just love watching nature at work recycling.

Max6r33n
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Re: composting basics

Hi there Im making a compost bin but I'm not sure if the bin's bottom should touch soil or if it can be elevated on some cobbles

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rainbowgardener
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Re: composting basics

Does it have an actual bottom (piece)? If so, it should have drainage holes in it and be elevated, to improve air circulation.

Most of them don't; they just enclose a given space and should sit on the ground. That allows earthworms and other detritovores to come up into them from the soil. They are an important part of the composting process.

PS Just read this again and realized you said you are making a bin. Just don't put a bottom on it!
Twitter account I manage for local Sierra Club: https://twitter.com/CherokeeGroupSC Facebook page I manage for them: https://www.facebook.com/groups/65310596576/ Come and find me and lots of great information, inspiration

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rainbowgardener
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Re: composting basics

Properly managed compost pile has NO odor, except a slight, not unpleasant, "earthiness."

If it is in an actual bin, (not just a holding frame), like a tumbler, it is harder to manage well to keep it at proper moisture levels and odor free. And over time, the plastic bin itself can absorb odors. Washing it out and airing it out would be good. I would hesitate to bleach it, since composting is a process that is dependent on micro-organisms.
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ACW
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Re: composting basics

My compost bins all 3 of them ,two of which were found are busy slowly dealing with our food waste ,my next door neighbours ,autum leaf fall ,garden waste,freebie newspaper and watered from myself.
Its home to some big slugs worms ,fruit flys and many other detrivores.no way would I ever bleach and kill these allies.
Mine rarely gets turned,just layered .spreading a layer of kitchen waste then either leaves or newspaper on top
as the bins fill the other two are harvested from the bottom ,seived ,returning the large unfinished items to the new pile.
This system gives me plenty of good compost for little effort.Suits me !
A gardener with a small shady back garden and a balcony with containers ,
biggest problem not enough sunshine !

imafan26
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Re: composting basics

I read that you can make compost in as little as 21 days or it can take months.
I get finished compost in about 6 months.
I don't do anything except worm and trench composting at home, but we do make compost at the garden.

I have worked with the compost hui (hui = group or association) and we have done compost experiments.
We did find that source material matters. The more nitrogen rich sources that is left at the end of the process, the better the compost is at supporting plant growth. It does not mean having more green volume but choosing the greens that have the most dense nitrogen. The best vermi compost we had, had chicken manure from the owner's chickens. Compost that were sourced from grass was richer in nitrogen than materials sourced from things like vegetable peelings. It kind of messed up our experiment though, because we were actually experimenting on whether snails in the compost mattered. The control compost grew twice as fast as the test and we were measuring plant growth. We ended up testing the compost and finding out the nitrogen was twice as high in the control sample. In the end our experiment yielded a bonus.

To boost our regular compost, we actually do add additional nitrogen to the finished compost to get bigger crop yields. We still have a problem sustaining yields for multiple plantings. It would not be a problem for people with short growing seasons when you can wait another 6 months for the compost to mature again. It is a problem for a 365 day growing season. I would have to be trench composting half the garden all of the time and rotating beds to be sustainable in a place where land is very valuable.

Now, because I actually have to raise the garden beds higher and compost is the most available thing to do it with, I am actually getting partially decomposed compost from the compost pile. The partially decomposed matter is then trench composted which requires regular watering and weeding. (I get a lot of volunteer papaya and squash this way). The trenches are covered with shade cloth basically to block weeds for 6 months before the beds are ready to be fortified and planted. I do get good results and the plants are healthy with good yields, but cannot be planted intensively or successively very well.

Compost made in bins still take about 3-5 months to complete. Six weeks of active turning and heating and the rest of the time finishing. We do test compost. Our finished compost has a pH 8 when it is finished. It limits its' use for acid loving plants unless sulfur and nitrogen are added in the finishing process to boost nitrogen and lower the pH.

How long does it take the average compost pile from start to finish to be ready?
How often do you have to turn a hot pile to get faster results?
What are the best source materials for your compost piles?
Happy gardening in Hawaii. Gardens are where people grow.

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