Updated: Aug 10, 2022
When you garden organically, the one thing you’ll need to put in your soil to promote healthy growth is compost. But what exactly is compost, and how do you make it? Organic compost is simply decomposed organic material that serves as fertilizer for plants and soil, but a lot of people don’t know how to go about making it on their own, or what materials can be used to create the best-quality compost.
In this article, we’ll show you everything you need to know about organic compost and how to make it with ease.
What is Compost?
There are a lot of misconceptions about compost and it is important that you understand what compost is, and how it is different from mulch or soil. Although some people might try to convince you that all three of these things are exactly the same, they couldn’t be more wrong.
MULCH: Mulch is placed on the surface of an area of soil. Its primary role is to protect the soil from erosion by wind and water. Mulch also helps to maintain moisture levels in the soil, preventing the growth of weeds and providing a more hospitable environment for plant life. There are many different types of mulch available, such as wood chips, straw, leaves, and bark. In general, organic mulches are more effective at protecting the soil than inorganic mulches such as plastic. However, any type of mulch can be beneficial in keeping the soil healthy and preventing erosion.
SOIL: Soil is a complex mix of particles, minerals, organic matter, water, and air. It forms the foundation of our ecosystems, supporting plant life and playing a vital role in the water and carbon cycles. Healthy soil is alive with microorganisms that help to break down organic matter and release nutrients for plants. It also has a spongy structure that helps it to absorb and retain water. Unfortunately, the soil is often under threat from human activity. Poor farming practices can lead to soil erosion, while pollution and development can damage its delicate balance of nutrients. As a result, we need to take care of our soils and ensure they are healthy and productive.
COMPOST: Like mulch, when you hear people refer to compost they are usually talking about relatively inert ground-up plant material, typically wood chips and leaves. Unlike mulch though, compost contains decomposing matter that serves as food for many different types of bacteria and fungi. These microbes eat waste products and turn them into nutrients plants need to grow properly by turning unusable items like cow manure into nutrient-rich fertilizer with a sweet smell, also known as finished compost. Properly made compost is teeming with life, so it's no wonder we call it fertile soil!
Essentially, anything outside of a biological system can be considered cold; however hot composting refers to a specific method using piles in which organic materials break down rapidly at temperatures greater than 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius). The only real downsides to hot-composting are time and moisture content but if done correctly these aren't problems.
There are many methods and styles of composting; however, there are two general types: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic (hot) composting is generally done at temperatures between 70-120 F (21-37 C) and produces compost in 3-5 weeks.
Anaerobic (cold), on the other hand, occurs at a much slower rate, usually around 55 F (13 C). To get started with your own organic compost heap, all you need is a large container for your mix. The container can be as simple as a pile of cardboard boxes or as complex as an aerated commercial system.
Getting Started With Organic Compost
There are a few kinds of composting systems, but most gardeners do it by layering carbon-rich materials (brown) and nitrogen-rich materials (green).
Because decomposition happens through internal heat, some people place their compost bin or pile in an outbuilding with an electric heater on low for as much as four months.
This isn’t necessary though; in fact, it may not be possible for everyone! In most cases, you can leave your organic material outside in piles until it breaks down.
How to Start a Hot Compost Pile
Hot composting, also known as thermophilic composting, is when piles reach upwards of 140, which is an environment in which many bacteria thrive. Hot composting is a technique that creates fast, efficient and cost-effective compost that improves soil for your garden.
Hot composting utilizes thermophilic microbes which help break down organic matter quickly and efficiently. Thermophilic organisms are at their peak activity when it’s hot outside, making hot composting a great way to recycle yard waste and food scraps into healthy soil for your plants—all year round!
For your hot compost pile, you'll want to use a blend of about 70% carbon-rich (brown) and 30% nitrogen-rich (green) ingredients.
* Make sure you cut up or shred all of your ingredients finely to escalate the decomposition process.
* Make a pile about 3 feet long and 3 feet wide. Add water periodically to each layer so it stays moist. You don't want it soaking wet but about as moist as a damp sponge. The more water and greens that you add the hotter your compost will be.
* Put some type of cover over your bin so that you can easily access it, but still protects it from rain and unwanted visitors.
* Stick a thermometer in your bin every day for about a week and wait for when it reaches its peak temperature. When it starts to drop that means your compost is ready.
How to Start a Cold Compost Pile
Cold composting occurs at a much lower temperature. Though cold composters might not be able to produce finished compost as quickly as their hot-composting counterparts, it allows for a wider variety of plant material.
This method is well suited for green beginners who are just getting started and want a slower approach to managing their organic waste.
For your cold compost pile, you'll want to use a 50/50 blend of carbon-rich (brown) and nitrogen-rich (green) ingredients.
Start by gathering your materials and building your pile in a convenient spot on your property where you can add scraps periodically.
For convenience sake, try to keep all of your components loose; there is no set ratio, but aim for approximately 50% greens (food scraps) and 50% browns (dryer items such as hay).
* Add kitchen scraps daily or every other day in manageable quantities so that you aren’t piling on too much at once.
* Put a cover over your bin so that you can keep out rain and keep an eye out for pests like mice who would love to finish off some of your leftovers that may be in there.
* To help speed things along a bit after 6 months or so add water during heavy rains until you begin seeing signs of decay.
Hot Composting VS Cold Composting
Composting is a great way to reduce your household waste while also creating a rich, fertile soil amendment for your garden. But composting isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition; there are actually two different types of composting, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Hot composting is the faster of the two methods, but it requires more attention and effort. Cold composting is slower, but it's much easier to maintain. So which type of composting is right for you?
Hot composting is a method that involves a pile of decomposing organic matter that is kept at a temperature between 113°F and 140°F. The high temperatures speed up the decomposition process, resulting in finished compost in as little as two weeks.
In contrast, cold composting can take months or even years to produce finished compost. Hot composting has the advantage of killing harmful bacteria and pathogens, making it ideal for composting kitchen scraps or other potential sources of contamination. To hot compost effectively, it is important to maintain an appropriate ratio of carbon-rich materials to nitrogen-rich materials. Too much carbon will result in a slow-moving compost pile, while too much nitrogen will cause the pile to smell bad and attract pests.
How Long Does It Take For An Organic Compost Pile To Be Ready?
A hot compost pile should be ready for use in about two weeks if there is adequate moisture and enough nitrogen-rich materials to heat it up.
A cold compost pile can take up to a year and a half to complete.
During that time, it will cycle through various stages, including cooking, when it heats up and releases gas; transition, when it settles down after cooking; and carbonizing. It's ready at that point because there are no longer any signs of fresh material in it.
In other words, you can't smell it or see any recognizable items in it—just crumbly brown dirt with almost no odor at all.
A common mistake of people starting a compost pile is not checking on it regularly enough. If you aren't checking on your pile every day, you could end up with something unusable or a lot less finished than intended.
Another way to ensure your compost is working as it should is to use a thermometer and record the temperatures each day. If it's still extremely hot wait until the temperature starts to drop before using it.
Nitrogen Rich Materials for Your Organic Compost Pile
Adding nitrogen-rich materials to your compost pile will help your compost break down more quickly and will give it better nutrient content once it’s finished. Here are some nitrogen-rich materials that you can use to get the job done right.
While you may be used to throwing them into your trash, corn cobs are a great addition to an organic compost pile. They have a C:N ratio of 17:1, which is excellent.
Just keep in mind that they can take up to six months to break down, so add them during fall or winter when your pile isn’t actively decomposing.
Green grass clippings
Grass clippings are loaded with nitrogen and act as a thickener when mixed into an organic compost pile.
According to a study published in Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, grass seedlings have twice as much protein, three times as much calcium, and six times as much nitrogen as other compost materials. That means that grass seedlings are an excellent addition to any organic compost pile.
One of nature’s most popular foods, onions are an excellent addition to a compost pile. In fact, not only will they add nitrogen and other nutrients back into your soil once you mix them in, but as a bonus, you can also plant them directly after your compost pile decomposes.
Green Peas are a good source of nitrogen because peas are among some of the richest sources of protein. In addition to protein, peas contain several minerals as well as vitamin C and iron.
The best part about these nutritional aspects is that they’re not easily lost in composting; despite containing water-soluble vitamins like C and Bs, pea pods will break down relatively quickly (about 2 weeks), which means they won’t slow down your compost production.
Carbon Rich Materials for Organic Compost
Here are some of the most carbon-rich materials to use in your next organic compost pile.
It’s dry and fibrous, meaning it decomposes fast. However, make sure your sawdust hasn’t been treated with chemicals or formaldehyde; there are safer ways to preserve wood that don’t include these potentially toxic agents.
By cutting your own firewood and bringing it into your yard, you can drastically reduce your carbon footprint while building up organic matter in your compost pile.
Paper is a manmade material, but since it comes from trees we decided to put it here. When it comes to organic compost materials, we’re not just talking about cardboard boxes, junk mail, and other bits and pieces from around your home. In fact, paper is incredibly carbon-rich - you could probably even call it carbon-dense.
That means that you can put a lot of paper into your garden or an organic compost pile and get a great deal more out than you expect.
Tea leaves are a great carbon-rich material to use in your compost pile. Tea is created by combining water and tea leaves. The blacker your tea, and therefore, more oxidized, means it has more carbon content! If you're looking to add some delicious-smelling organic material to your compost pile while reducing food waste, tea leaves are a great option.
One pound of leaves can produce about 1/3 pound of compost. Leaves are an excellent source of carbon and add oxygen to a compost pile, allowing microorganisms to digest food waste more efficiently.
Only use deciduous trees as coniferous trees (like pine) don’t break down easily in a home setting. Make sure you’re gathering only fallen leaves—don’t pick them up off your neighbor’s lawn!
Wood ash is high in potassium. It also has a neutral pH, which means it does not affect composting balance. Wood ash is commonly used as a fertilizer because it helps plants resist frost, heat, and drought. Additionally, wood ash contains phosphorus, iron, and other trace minerals that improve soil quality and overall crop yield.
The Two Main Components of Organic Material
To make your compost pile, you need two main types of organic material: brown and green. Brown materials are carbon-rich items that tend to break down slowly, like tree branches and dead leaves.
Green materials are nitrogen-rich sources, like grass clippings or vegetable scraps. The mixture is ideally 30 percent green and 70 percent brown—the resulting balance of carbon and nitrogen helps your compost pile heat up evenly.
Tips To Remember When Preparing Your Compost Pile
To get started on your composting adventure, you’ll want to collect a few items: newspaper, cardboard, and non-meat food scraps. If you have access to leaves and straw, those can be included as well.
Start by laying down several layers of newspaper or brown paper bags. Once these are in place add a thin layer of loose straw or hay over top.
This process will help keep your materials from becoming too soggy during rainfall events. After these two steps are completed, start adding your non-meat food scraps into the mix!
Choosing the Right Container
There are many types of composting containers you can use for your compost pile. Some may be easier than others, but they each have their own benefits.
For example, plastic bins are lightweight and sturdy, which makes them easy to move around and rotate periodically. They’re also relatively cheap and some have fun designs that could improve your garden’s curb appeal. One potential disadvantage of plastic bins is that they can retain moisture, which may cause mold growth on your finished compost.
However, if you're serious about composting it is a good idea to choose a bin made from wood or metal because these materials allow for better airflow throughout your pile.
Getting The Most Out Of Your Organic Compost Pile
While getting compost for free from your yard waste is a good start, it’s still worth buying a composting bin, or constructing your own. You need something that’s big enough to hold at least two cubic yards of material and will seal off-odors and critters. A 3'x3'x4' plastic-coated wire mesh cage with a lid will do nicely. (The best design has an access door at one end.) This material can be found at any hardware store.
Make sure you buy high-quality coverings—cheap ones don’t seal well and may even allow odor to escape. Line the bottom of your container with landscape fabric to keep animals out, add about 4 of organic matter such as food scraps, grass clippings or plant trimmings then toss in another layer until you've filled it up. When you're done, put on its lid and wait for nature to take its course! It's essential that your pile is built in stages like this since adding too much high nitrogen material initially can make things go bad fast.
A properly made compost pile should be moist and smelly but not watery. You can test with a long screwdriver: stick it into your pile from outside, at least 3' down; if you pull back and there's no dark liquid anywhere on your end, everything should be fine.
If all seems OK and nothing has heated up unduly, turn over everything after a week or two; open a hole all around the edge using a post-hole digger (the doggiest tools ever) to get air inside--or maybe use some well-placed stakes—and flip over each ingredient onto what's below so worms don't hide themselves away from daylight; give things another couple weeks before turning again.