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Composting Basics

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The secret to making a successful compost pile is to place your materials in alternating layers of green and brown (fresh vs dead vegetation) and sprinkle some old compost and/or a little garden soil in every couple of layers.   Brown layers can consist of dead vegetation from spring or fall cleanup, fall leaves, finely chopped or chipped or shredded tree and shrub branches, sawdust, wood ash, straw, shredded bark, shredded or torn up cardboard or brown paper or newspaper, hair or coir or jute twine and other natural fibers (cut or chopped up), etc and can be up to several inches thick.  Green layers should be a little less thick especially if it is grass clippings, although they can  also consist of any green leafy vegetation from your garden or flower beds, fresh chopped or shredded green leafy tree and shrub trimmings, shredded or chopped conifer boughs, fresh seaweed or algae from pond or beach cleanup, discarded potted plants or starts or older crops and annuals which have been pulled, and vegetative kitchen scraps.

New Compost Pile Just Started in The Oracle's Garden, First Layer of Brown Material From Spring Cleanup such as Dried Leaves, Clippings from Flower Borders and Beds, and Chopped Up Small Branches or Twigs along with General Yard Debris.
New Compost Pile Just Started, First Layer of Brown From Spring Cleanup

Make sure your materials are chopped up somewhat so that you don't just end up with a brush heap, especially if they are stemmy or twiggy.   If you live in a hot dry climate or have long dry summers you may need to sprinkle your compost pile with water occasionally to keep some moisture in it or you could end up with a fire hazard and not much composting action.   Conversely if you live in a wet climate you may want to build a cover over it for the wettest months so that it doesn't get too soggy (although then you may still need to spray it down with water periodically).

If you are going to include kitchen scraps make sure it's only fruit and/or vegetable matter, nut shells, eggshells, brown paper towels, coffee grounds and filters, and tea leaves or biodegradable tea-bags. Try to put these things scattered in very thin layers or even mixed in with the other materials as they tend to rot and smell if just put in large clumps.  Never put meat/poultry or meat by-products, grease or butter, dairy or oils in your compost.  Also don't include cooked food even if it's vegetables unless you are sure there is absolutely no grease or oils or flavorings on/in it.

1 Year Old Compost Pile With Multiple Layers, Almost Full. Note the Mixture of Various Types of Plant Materials.  The Pop-up Bins in the Foreground are Extremely Useful, as is the Compost Mill in the Left Lower Corner of This Picture - These Items can be Purchased Through the Garden Suppliers listed on The Garden Oracle Site.
1 Year Old Compost Pile With Multiple Layers, Almost Full.

Compost piles need to be at least 3 feet in all directions to be effective, and bigger is better.  Most people like to have their piles in some sort of enclosure, these are usually made from wire grid or wooden slats or pallets and can range in size depending on the need and space available.  Some systems have a few chambers side by side for multiple piles in various stages of decomposition.  Turning the compost regularly (every 6 weeks or so) with a pitchfork is helpful for aeration and faster hotter composting, but it can be labor intensive -- so if you have teenagers with lots of energy this is a great chore for them!  The idea is to put the bottom on top and the top on the bottom, the outside in and the inside out, and sort of mix it all together.  If you have a compost tumbler this will be alot easier and you don't have to worry about the layering, but you still need to have a good mix of green and brown and add a little old compost or soil to the mix.

2 Year Old Compost Pile Ready For Processing & Screening.  Noticed How it has Settled Down By Almost TWO FEET in Comparison with the Previous Photo and Darkened Up Considerably.  That's a Good Indication of Aerobic Microbial Action Breaking Down the Plant Materials (and So Is the Heat it Puts Off).  These Processes Concentrate the Nutrients and Make Them More Available to the Plants In Your Garden.
2 Year Old Compost Pile Ready For Processing & Screening

If you have alot of material and space and you're not in a hurry you can make larger piles and just let them break down naturally for a couple years. This is the way I do it, and I will never turn another compost pile if I can help it (laughs).  I have a 16 foot by 8 foot space with a pallet wall built around it lined with plywood.  I do one compost pile on each end of that with a space in between for access, so each pile is almost 8 foot square, and up to 6 feet high when finished (although after a while that settles to 4 or 5 feet high).  I do one at a time, after a year or two of piling stuff in the first pile I switch to the other the following spring. By the time the second pile is partway finished the first is about two years old, and ready for harvesting.  I sort through it as I need it and deposit the rougher stuff back into the new pile in layers with the new material. By the time I'm finished sorting through the old pile the newest one is full and the cycle begins again, starting a new pile where the old one was.

Finished and Screened Compost From Bottom Of Last Pile, Black Gold!  In This Shot I've Taken the Oldest and Most Decomposed Compost and Screened it off Through my Compost Mill, Then Put it in Galvanized Storage Bins (Trash Cans) for Later Use in the Garden Beds or in Making Custom Mixed Potting Soil.
Finished and Screened Compost From Bottom Of Last Pile, Black Gold!

I also have a running pile out further on the property for things I don't want to put in the fine compost or if I run out of room.  This pile is quite large and will someday yield plenty of nice compost for a future project but it will undoubtedly have lots of weed seeds in it so any applications will have to be followed with a layer of mulch.  Additionally out in the same area there is a large burn pile area for burning debris that is not acceptable or desireable in even a rough compost, such as highly invasive weeds and their roots, large branches or logs, thorny or stickery materials like rose clippings and bramble or thistle, diseased plants or  trimmings, and fruit tree debris which often passes disease.  After these materials are burned however, the ashes are good to add in moderate amounts to compost or garden soil to increase potash (potassium).

Aged Fine Grade Compost Ready For Use in the Garden or Containers, Note The Light Crumbly Texture!  This Compost has Aged Even Further than that in the Previous Photo, and Would be Great for use as Seedling Mix in the Greenhouse as it is Quite Fine, Although it Could be Re-Screened Through a Finer Grade Soil Seive if Desired.
Aged Fine Grade Compost Ready For Garden, Note The Light Crumbly Texture!

A compost screen made from a wooden frame with 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch grid mesh or a rotary compost mill is nice to have to sift your finished compost for a finer quality product when it's done composting.   Sift into/over a wheelbarrow and toss the larger chunks and bits back into the newer compost as you go, then you can just fill up your wheelbarrow with good compost and wheel it to where you need it.   I like to process a few wheelbarrows full of fine compost and save it in large covered trashcans or similar containers for easy use as needed.  It also makes great seedling or potting mix when combined half and half with store-bought potting soil.

Remember not to put seed heads or weeds with roots or seeds in your compost, no meat or grease or dairy, and no thorny trimmings or diseased plant material either.  Follow these guidelines and you're sure to be composting like a pro in no time!

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Springtime blossoms and greens in my organic vegetable, herb, fruit and cutting flower garden!

Springtime blossoms and greens in my organic vegetable, herb, fruit and cutting flower garden!