Now that you have set up your bins or purchased your composter, you are ready to get started making your own compost to use in your garden. It is important to point out that a compost heap takes several months to break down into the nutrient-rich product that you want for your soil. Depending on what you add to the heap, the size of the heap and the weather conditions, it can take much longer for the compost to be ready for use.
NOTE: if you missed Composting Part 1 – click here
What to Add to the Heap
Compost heaps are fairly easy to manage. The rule of thumb when it comes to adding ingredients to your compost heap is basically; is the item organic? Organic being anything that was derived from living matter. Plants, animals, trees, bushes and so on are all organic.
The following list includes some of the more common items you will have in your kitchen or yard that can be put into your compost heap. The list is not all-inclusive, but it will help give you a general idea. If you don’t find a particular item on this list and it isn’t on the next list of what not to add, it is generally safe to put it in your compost heap.
- Coffee grounds
- Plant stems, leaves, peels, i.e. tops of carrots, the core of a head of lettuce, banana peels and etc…
- Grass clippings
- Cardboard—this should be torn into small pieces as it can take a long time to break down
- Paper—NOT magazine paper
- Newspaper—helps if you shred it first
- Sawdust and/or woodshavings
- Tea leaves/bags
- Pine needles/pine cones
- Paper towels/napkins
- Dryer lint
- Old cotton t-shirts and socks
- Cotton balls
- Ash from firepit or woodstove—As long as it isn’t ash from treated wood
- Chicken, horse, goat manure
- Peanut shells
Nearly anything that is organic and hasn’t been treated with chemicals can be put into your compost heap. Some products will take longer to break down than others, but with a good balance of nitrogen and carbon-based items, the process will be completed within six months.
What Not to Compost
There are some things you don’t want to add to your compost heap. The reasons vary, but in a nutshell you want to keep out unwanted guests like raccoon, mice, maggots and etc.
Dairy and fats are not a good idea because they tend to make your heap too “hot” and cause a rapid decomposition that isn’t ideal. They also invite animals to your heap, which can be dangerous as well as incredibly messy.
Here are a few other things you want to avoid tossing in your pile.
- Plastic, glass and material that is not organic
- Dog or cat poop
- As mentioned above—no magazine paper or other waxy paper, colored paper is also not a good idea due to the dyes that are involved
- Meat bones, skin and scraps
- Dairy products
- Chemicals of any kind—no detergents, cleaners and so on
- Weeds if you can avoid it
- Diseased plants—this will put the bacteria right back into the soil via your compost
- Rice—rice invites birds and other unwanted pests, cooked rice is a horrible bacteria instigator
- Coal ash is very acidic and can destroy the balance in your heap
- Walnuts—they contain a compound known as juglone that can kill plants
As you can see, the list is rather short and specific. It is easy to avoid tossing these items into your heap.
Balancing Nitrogen and Carbon
It is important you have a balanced mixture of greens, which release nitrogen and carbons, also known as browns. Manure, kitchen scraps and plants are considered green items. They release a great deal of nitrogen, which helps heat up the pile and causes the decomposition. Browns are things like branches, wood chips and leaves. These are carbon-based materials and help balance the nitrogen.
You will need a lot more carbon than nitrogen. Some experts recommend a 25:1 ratio. It takes very little green material to get a compost pile cooking. You don’t want the pile to have so much nitrogen that it breaks down too fast and can actually be a fire hazard. Compost piles that are too high in nitrogen can spontaneously combust.
One way to judge your nitrogen levels is simply by smelling the heap. If there is a very strong ammonia-like smell, you need to add some carbon. You can also purchase a gauge that you insert into the heap to literally take it’s temperature. These gauges will indicate where you want the temperature to be.
Your compost heap should smell earthy. There are going to be certain days in the decomposition cycle that the ammonia smell is present. That is okay. Give the pile a good stir and see if that helps even it out. If it doesn’t you will need to add some carbon material. Don’t go overboard. Too much brown material can bring your decomposition to a screeching halt. There is a fine balance, which you will get the hang of with some experience.
If your compost heap seems to be at a standstill, it may be due to a lack of air circulation. The pile needs air circulating throughout, which is why you need to either turn it in the composter or stir your pile with a pitchfork. This helps create a more balanced decomposition process. If you don’t stir the pile, you will discover the outer edges and top do not breakdown much if at all.
Putting it to Use
You will know when your compost is ready by looking at it. Stir the heap and ensure everything is broken down. You shouldn’t be able to see things like grass, food scraps or bits of straw. It should all be broke down into a dark, crumbly matter that resembles soil. It should have an earthy smell with no traces of ammonia. If your compost heap passes the test, it is time to work it into your soil and get started on your next heap to be ready to use six months down the road.