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Composting

Composting turns household wastes into valuable fertilizer and soil organic matter.
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All organic matter eventually decomposes. Composting speeds the process by providing an ideal environment for bacteria and other decomposing microorganisms. The final product, humus or compost, looks and feels like fertile garden soil. This dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling stuff works wonders on all kinds of soil and provides vital nutrients to help plants grow and look better.

Decomposing organisms consist of bacteria, fungi, and larger organisms such as worms, sow bugs, nematodes, and numerous others. Decomposing organisms need four key elements to thrive: nitrogen, carbon, moisture, and oxygen. For best results, mix materials high in nitrogen (such as clover, fresh grass clippings, and livestock manure) and those high in carbon (such as dried leaves and twigs). If there is not a good supply of nitrogen-rich material, a handful of general lawn fertilizer will help the nitrogen-carbon ratio. Moisture is provided by rain, but you may need to water or cover the pile to keep it damp. Be careful not to saturate the pile. Turning or mixing the pile provides oxygen. Frequent turning yields faster decomposition.

Getting started
Many materials can be added to a compost pile, including leaves, grass clippings, straw, woody brush, vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, livestock manure, sawdust, and shredded paper. Do not use diseased plants, meat scraps that may attract animals, and dog or cat manure which can carry disease. Composting can be as simple or as involved as you would like, and depends on how much yard waste you have, how fast you want results, and the effort you are willing to invest.

Cold or slow composting
With cold or slow composting, you can just pile grass clippings and dry leaves on the ground or in a bin. This method requires no maintenance, but it will take several months to a year or more for the pile to decompose. Cold composting works well if you are short on time needed to tend the compost pile at least every other day, have little yard waste, and are not in a hurry to use the compost. Keep weeds and diseased plants out of the mix since the temperatures reached with cold composting may not be high enough to kill the weed seeds or disease-causing organisms. Add yard waste as it accumulates. Shredding or chopping speeds up the process. To easily shred material, run your lawn mower over small piles of weeds and trimmings. Cold composting has been shown to be better at suppressing soil-borne diseases than hot composting. Cold composting also leaves more undecomposed bits of material, which can be screened out if desired.

Hot composting
Hot composting requires more work, but with a few minutes a day and the right ingredients you can have finished compost in a few weeks depending on weather conditions. The composting season coincides with the growing season. When conditions are favorable for plant growth, those same conditions work well for biological activity in the compost pile. However, since compost generates heat, the process may continue later into the fall or winter.

Hot piles do best when high-carbon material and high-nitrogen material are mixed in a 1 to 1 ratio. A pile with the minimum dimensions of 3' x 3' x 3' is needed for efficient heating. For best heating, make a heap that is 4 or 5 feet in each dimension. As decomposition occurs, the pile will shrink. If you don't have this amount at one time, simply stockpile your materials until a sufficient quantity is available for proper mixing.

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