There are literally millions of articles on how to make compost. A Google search turned up 8,560,000. I didn’t even try to get past the first 3 pages, but most of them were instructions for making a “hot compost pile”.
I have just come to realize that some (and I’ll bet there are many) new gardeners think this is the only way to get finished compost. The fact of the matter is there are numerous ways to compost.
Understanding What Compost Is
The Noun – “Compost” – is a mixture of decaying organic material. (This can be cut cover crops, leaves, straw, kitchen scraps, or manure. It is the organic material that is decaying. It is NOT the finished product.)
The Verb – “To Compost” means to convert to compost (or decaying organic material.)
Finished Compost looks like uniform, loose, crumbly dark earth. It’s called Humus.
- A “hot compost pile” is only one of many methods to arrive at the goal of finished compost — or humus. A hot compost pile produces finished compost more quickly than other methods; this is the main advantage of a hot compost pile.
If done properly a moist mixture of “greens” (like grass grass clippings) and “browns” (like leaves) heats to between 115 to 160 degrees and renders the mixture to humus (finished compost). With finely chopped ingredients and proper conditions you could have humus in as little as 14 days. The time — whether 14 days, 6 weeks, or 3 months — all depends on the conditions that are present.
MEMO: You’ll see a lot of holding units and turning units for this method of composting advertised. All these things are unnecessary for making compost piles. So just remember — you don’t need to speed a penny unless you really want to.
- Cold Compost Pile
Pile up organic material. Let it rot. No need to worry about the right proportion of “greens” (adding nitrogen to heat the pile) and “browns” (carbons to add fiber and air) or how much water to add. No turning it. Hardly any time spent.
Takes longer to make finished compost than a hot pile, but the result is the same — humus.
Reminder: Do not place diseased material into a cold compost pile because pathogens need the heat of a hot pile to kill them.
If you don’t have the time or the inclination to pile up organic material, turn it several times, and haul the humus back to garden — there are ways to get humus with far less effort. And it can be done right at the spot that needs the organic matter.
Here are Other Methods:
- Sheet composting
This is an easy way to obtain the benefit of compost without building a compost pile. It involves spreading a layer of organic material over a garden area and tilling it into the soil to accelerate decomposition. (I don’t recommend tilling.) Or — you can pile layers of organic material on the soil and allow it to decompose over time like the popular Lasagna method of soil preparation.
- Pit Composting
-This is a simple way for composting kitchen scraps. Dig the soil a shovel’s depth. Put your kitchen scraps in the hole and then cover with the soil you removed. Decomposition can take one month or one year depending on the temperatures and the microorganisms in your soil. (The warmer the temperatures and the more microorganisms in your soil — the faster decomposition is.)
-Keep in mind your kitchen scraps will use nitrogen in the soil for the decay process — so you don’t want them to compete for the nitrogen with growing plants. Thus, the best time to use Pit Composting in garden beds is when the beds are empty and will remain empty long enough for decay to take place.
-I bury my kitchen scraps at random in unused areas of my garden. In the growing season when the garden is full I bury the scraps under the straw in the paths. The next year, I throw several inches of the resulting rich humus from the paths up onto an adjoining bed and put more straw into the path.
- Heavy Mulching
Mulching imitates nature. Think in terms of a forest floor.
Decay taking place at the soil’s surface is slower. It’s steady and maintains soil fertility. Soil microbes and worms abound. They continuously loosen the earth and eliminate crusting.
Mulch keeps the humus from oxidizing in the high summer heat and it helps retain moisture.
If a new garden is made in infertile soil it may take a year or two to build soil life with the heavy mulching method. (If you can add manure just in the beginning, it will speed up the process.) Once that’s done mulching materials alone are sufficient to fertilize the soil!
The Need for Compost
It’s hard to read anything about organic gardening that doesn’t mention the need for compost. If you’re a successful organic gardener, compost is already part of your soil fertility plan — as it is mine. And — over the years I’ve used every one of the above methods to obtain the needed finished compost (humus).
When I first started gardening I made a hot compost pile. I now use all the methods that take the least amount of time.
You don’t need to spend one penny to compost, unless you want to. And you don’t have to spend much time composting. The method you use to get finished compost (humus) doesn’t have to be a “hot compost pile” —, but rather whatever method fits your time, schedule, life style and pocketbook the best.
All organic material decays. The result is humus (finished compost). It doesn’t matter to your soil which method you use to get it.
Gardening – Keep It Simple Because It Is
Composting – The Whys and Why Nots
Organic Gardening is easy, efficient, effective and its a lot healthier.
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I love compost and I love composting! Plenty of opportunity to tinker, if you are a garden tinkerer!!
I used to hot compost by getting large buckets of vegetable scraps from a local restaurant, but they closed. Now, I cold compost, and I buy a bag of Coast of Maine when I’m feeling like I want to spend the money. I use it like it’s gold dust on my favorite veg. There’s never enough!!
Agreed — There is never enough Sandra!
I have a question about composting, actually I have two.
I have an area in my yard that I am making bigger for planting. I want to add stuff into the soil over the next few months before I start planting in March or so. I have already added some shredded paper, leaves, coffee grounds.
I want to consider adding manure, but not sure how to even do that. I have some horse farms not far from where I live, but do not know anything about these horses what they have eaten, or been medically treated with(does that make a difference).
I also have a lot of thick brown paper bags like what you get when you shop at Wholefoods, do these need to be shredded, or can I layer them and cover with compost? Will they break down quick enough for planting? I will be tilling all of this in after it sits for a couple months.
We also have an extension location here in Orlando where I can get free compost, is there any reason why I cannot use this?
Karen – your questions are excellent. I will answer as soon as I can. I want to devote some time to the answer because your questions are important and many gardeners have these same concerns.
Please be patient. I will try to get an answer up by Saturday.
I appreciate your help, I will look forward to your posting when you can.
Karen, I have answered your concerns about manure and municipal compost in detail in a new post
Regarding your brown paper bags —- you don’t really need to shred them but you might want to cut them up in smaller pieces since Spring is quickly approaching and they may not have enough time to totally decay.
I hope you’ll find all the information helpful.
Best of luck with everything!
I have a very small backyard garden as I live in town and am not allowed to dig up the yard. I just started composting this year, and am kicking myself for never having done it before! 🙂 Better late than never, though, eh? 🙂
I started looking at different methods and bins back during the winter, knowing that I’d have to have something small that would produce humus as quickly as possible, and I yearned to get my hands on one of those tumbling bins… that is, until I found out that they are typically upwards of $100! Yikes!
So, I took matters into my own hands and “borrowed” an lid garbagecan-like bin that my kids stored their balls in (never used for trash, of course) and used my husband’s rotary tool to make LOTS if small holes all around and under it, and set it up on bricks for proper drainage capability. The best part is that it is round, so every few days I roll it around my porch to aerate the contents. I got my tumble bin after all, and literally didn’t spend a penny for it! I really think I’ll start another one soon to hold new scraps while the others cook; the pile would probably be finished by now if I would stop adding things to it. lol
So to all those who think they don’t have the space or ability to compost, take it from me that it is indeed very possible and one if the most interesting things you will do, not to mention how much the veggies love the tea from it! Even my kids (ages 6 and almost 4) argue over who gets to help Mom turn the compost pile, and they LOVE figuring out what gets composted and what doesn’t. 🙂 If nothing else, just the knowing how much my kids are learning and gaining from this is enough to stick with it!
I’d love to submit a picture if my small back porch bin to help others who also have only a small space to work with. If anyone is interested, though, I’d be happy to give them my email and send pictures. 🙂 Definitely want to spread the joy!
I’m sure everyone would be interest in seeing the pictures, Brittany.
Send one to me and I’ll try to post it under the post itself.