Composting is one of the most important activities to a homesteader. For this reason, compost has been termed as “black gold”.
There are many ways to make great compost. Composting can be done in a barrel, on the ground, or in compost bins. There is also “hot” and “cool” composting. Understanding your composting needs will help you make the right decision when choosing which method is right for your homestead.
Having an understanding of how the process of composting works and the materials needed is helpful also. Placing the wrong material in the pile or using the wrong amount can seriously slow down the process.
Knowing how much moisture and heat the pile has is as important to the materials you use also. Learning all you can before you begin composting will provide you with the reward or nutrient rich compost to use in your gardening.
Why You Need to be Composting
Anyone who has crappy soil knows that nothing flourishes in it. The soil needs help to become healthy and fertile. That’s where composting comes in. Here in central Florida, we have sand. Unless cactus gardening is your forte, the ground is pretty much useless.
Compost provides organisms for the soil. It gives nutrients, balances the ph, kills pollutants, and allows the soil to hold water. It is like fertilizer for the soil. Adding compost to the sandy soil allows me to have abundant gardens throughout the year.
Composting also reduces waste. There are many materials that we throw away or discard that can go into the compost pile, therefore reducing the landfills that much more. Examples include food waste like fruit and vegetable peels. Paper and cardboard can be shredded and added to the compost pile, as well as yard waste like grass clippings and leaves.
So now you know why you need to be composting. Now we can discuss how to compost.
Ways to Compost
Composting can be done in many ways. Which type of composting you choose will depend on how much space you have and how much compost you plan on using.
You can use a compost bin. Bins come in many shapes and sizes. You can purchase compost bins or you can make them yourself.
Purchased composters are usually a round container with holes drilled throughout, placed on a stand so it can be turned, and are usually smaller in size. They can also be standing stall type units that sit on the ground. With these units you put them where you want them, then just stir and add water and material every once in awhile. These hold limited amounts of compost and are good for a smaller yard.
DIY compost bins are easy to build. Some people use pallets to make “bins” and rotate their compost through each bin. I’ve seen compost done in concrete block squares that are stacked on 3 sides with fencing in the front. You can search Youtube for DIY Compost Bins and find many great ideas.
Hot or Cool Composting
There are 2 types of composting, hot and cool.
The pallet bins and containers I mentioned above use the hot method. In this method, water is added to the compost pile after all the organic material is added. It is mixed with a pitchfork or turned more frequently. A tarp or cover is placed over the pile. This allows the heat to build up in the center which “cooks” the pile. Thus, it is called the hot method. This method usually, if done right, produces compost much quicker than the cool method. This method requires a lot of sun and access to water regularly.
The cool method of composting is usually used when a compost pile is started on the ground in a pile. It is turned a few times over the year. This method of composting can take a year or even two because it does not heat up like the hot method pile does. Basically, it breaks down naturally.
I have some cool compost piles in the woods beside my house. I simply drive some stakes in the ground, wrap some poultry netting around it and fill it with leaves and grass. It gets turned when I remember, but for the most part, I let nature do it for me. It takes a long time but I receive great compost every year and a half from these piles.
What Goes in the Compost Pile
Compost piles need the right mix of greens and browns. Greens provide the nitrogen that plants need and browns provide carbon. Greens are wet whereas browns are dry.
- moldy food
- chicken, goat and rabbit manure
- coffee grounds
- tea leaves
- green leaves, grass clippings
- aquarium water
- egg shells
- dried leaves and grass
- straw/wood chips
- shredded paper/cardboard
- coffee filters and tea bags
- cotton fabric
- corn cobs
- nut shells
These lists are just a small sample of what can be composted.
How to Find the Perfect Balance While Composting
Composting is not a 50/50 split as one may think. An easy formula to follow when starting out is the 6 to 2 method of layering. In this method, you place 6 inches of brown material, then 2 inches of green material on top. This gets watered until the pile feels moist. The moisture level is similar to chocolate cake. Mix the pile with a pitchfork. Repeat this process each time you want to add to your pile.
Your compost pile should have no foul smell to it. If it does it is probably too wet. The solution is simple. Add more brown material to absorb the dampness and mix the pile again. Eventually, the brown material will absorb enough moisture that the pile will no longer smell.
If the pile is too dry, you can add more green material, or water the pile a little heavier. As long as you have the right balance of brown and green materials, water should be the solution to a dry pile.
A compost pile using the hot method should be turned once a week in the warmer weather. Turning often ensures even composting is taking place throughout the entire pile. Also, keep the moisture levels correct. Composting happens above 40° regardless, but the higher the heat and the better the moisture, the better and faster the compost will be ready. Covering with a tarp or black plastic can help the pile to retain the heat.
There are only two differences between hot and cool compost piles. First of all, hot compost is ready quicker. Second, the heat of a hot compost pile kills seeds and pathogens that will still be there in a cool pile. Outside of these two differences, the two are generally the same.
Don’t be intimidated by making your first compost pile. It’s not rocket science. Just do it. Your garden will reward you for all your efforts.
To read about other beneficial skills to learn about gardening and homesteading see 5 Skills Homesteaders Should Learn.