Create your own compost pile at home
By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Feature Article - posted Fri., May. 6, 2011
With sustainability, carbon footprints and renewable resources touching almost everyone’s thoughts and activities these days, the U.S. Composting Council (www.compostingcouncil.org) is focusing its mission on “broadening the understanding of compost use and promoting the awareness of composting.” Most folks are aware that composting is the process of hastening the natural decomposition of organic materials. One does this by providing conditions conducive to decay.
Composting does not have to be smelly, messy, or a lot of work. The end result is a marvelous amendment which renders the soil more workable, improves its water and nutrient-holding capacity, increases its drainage and fertility, and provides a source of food and energy to essential soil organisms. The addition of compost to soils also increases the amount of carbon a soil contains, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Composting can have benefits beyond your own backyard.
There is no magic formula for making compost. Decomposition of plant and animal remains and debris is an integral part of the natural world, and will happen with or without your help. Following some compost guidelines will speed up the natural decay process.
Start by locating the compost pile. A major consideration is convenience. Let’s face it: a pile situated somewhere on the “back 40” is more likely to be forgotten than one placed closer to the garden or house. Contain the pile with wood, fencing or cinder blocks for a more attractive look and to keep materials from blowing in the wind. Partially shaded locations will keep the pile from drying out quickly, but a nearby source of water is handy during prolonged dry spells.
What to compost? Almost any organic material can be added to the pile – leaves, grass clippings, kitchen wastes, shredded newspapers, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, small herbivore litter (from a guinea pig, rabbit, etc.), hedge trimmings, spent plants (disease-free), plain strips of cardboard, and so on. When you are adding these materials, take into account the proportion of “brown stuff” – which is high in carbon, like fallen leaves or straw or shredded paper – to “green stuff” – which is high in nitrogen, like kitchen wastes, manure or grass clippings.
Ideally, you want to create a pile that has about 30 times more brown stuff than green stuff. Too much material high in carbon will slow down the decay process. You can add more green stuff to the pile or add several cups of a high-nitrogen fertilizer such as bloodmeal.
Faster composting also requires oxygen, which is introduced into the pile each time it is turned, and water, which is added to dry materials as the pile is made and later during droughty periods.
For fast or “hot” composting to occur, your pile needs to be a minimum of 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet. A typical compost recipe calls for 6 inches of leaves, straw or other brown stuff to be topped with an inch or 2 of green stuff, plus a shovelful of soil. This layering is repeated until the pile reaches about 4 feet high. Then the pile can be given a thorough turning and, if conditions are right, it will heat up to 140 degrees F in three to five days. Serious composters may want to purchase a long-stemmed thermometer to monitor temperatures. Turn the pile each time the temperatures drop to around 100 degrees F, or about once a week.
Compost is ready to use when it is dark and crumbly and the original organic materials are no longer recognizable. This may take eight weeks to one year. Compost can be added to garden soils, used as part of an organic seed-starting mix, or made into a compost tea.
Have your soil tested every few years, if adding compost regularly, to keep your soil nutrients at optimal levels.
For more information on composting or questions on other gardening topics, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 860-486-6271, visit the website at www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Office.