Composting 101

Learn how to make a compost pile that creates the optimal conditions for decomposition.

By Willi Evans Galloway

|||||

Nature creates compost all the time without human intervention. But gardeners can step in and speed up the composting process by creating the optimal conditions for decomposition: Air + Water + Carbon + Nitrogen = Compost

Air. Like most living things, the bacteria that decompose organic matter, and the other creatures that make up the compost ecosystem, need air. Compost scientists say compost piles need porosity—the ability for air to move into the pile. I like to think of porosity in terms of fluffiness. A fluffy pile has plenty of spaces—or pores—for air to move about. A flat, matted pile of, say, grass clippings does not. Even fluffy piles compress during the composting process. Occasionally turning your pile refluffs the material, moves new material into the center, and helps improve air flow into the pile, says Craig Cogger, Ph.D., extension soil scientist at Washington State University.

Water. Compost microbes also need the right amount of water. Too much moisture reduces airflow, causes temperatures to fall, and can make the pile smell; too little water slows decomposition and prevents the pile from heating. Conventional wisdom says that compost should feel like a wrung-out sponge, says Abigail Maynard, Ph.D., agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station.

Carbon ingredients. The microbes that break down organic matter use carbon as an energy source. Ingredients with a high percentage of carbon are usually dry and brown or yellow in color. The most common high-carbon ingredients are leaves, straw, and corn stalks. Sometimes people call these ingredients browns.

Nitrogen ingredients. Microbes need nitrogen for the proteins that build their tiny bodies. Ingredients high in nitrogen are generally green, moist plant matter, such as leaves, or an animal by-product, such as manure. These ingredients are called greens, but in reality they can be green, brown, and all colors in between.

C/N ratio. In order for a compost pile to decompose efficiently, you need to create the right ratio of carbon (C) to nitrogen (N) (C/N). Piles with too much nitrogen tend to smell, because the excess nitrogen converts into an ammonia gas. Carbon-rich piles break down slowly because there's not enough nitrogen for the microbe population to expand. An ideal compost pile should have a 30:1 C/N ratio. Grass clippings alone have about a 20:1 C/N ratio. Adding one part grass clippings, or other green, to two parts dead leaves, or other brown, will give you the right mix.

Turn kitchen scraps into super-fertile soil!  Learn more.

New for your e-reader or tablet: Compostology 1-2-3.

Page:
ADVERTISMENT