What is Compost?

Composting refers to the process of making compost, most commonly in the form of compost piles. Composting is mixing together yard waste, food, and other organic waste in proportions that favour the growth and reproduction of bacteria. The outcome of such a feat becomes one of the best catalysts known in the shaping of your garden.

“Compost” is the decaying organic matter that has been broken down by the bacteria and other tiny microbes that have been feeding on it. The process turns the organic matter into something that resembles soil, but it’s high in Carbon, Nitrogen, and Organic Material. Compost is then added to your garden and has been knowingly referred to as fertilizer. However, you will find the two are very different. The main difference between the two is that fertilizer tends to increase particular nutrients in your soil. Compost itself is more of a soil amendment and increases the Organic Compounds in your soil.

Higher amounts of Organic Matter in your soil can be very beneficial in many ways like water retention, fertilizer retention/availability, and an increase in Organisms. 

Compost piles work by collecting materials for bacteria to start feeding and multiplying on. There is no need to add any bacteria to your mix as most of them occur naturally on living things to break them down. For the bacteria, this process is feast or famine. The bacteria will eat as long as material exists and reproduce until all the nutrients are used up. The process depends on several factors like temperature, size of your pile, and overall pile management. Resulting in a drop in volume of up to 60% of the size of your original compost piles. If you’ve used proper compost pile management, you should end up with material that looks and smells like soil.

Why Compost?

In Organic Gardening, the ideal situation leaves food in a closed-loop. This is where all food waste is returned to the soils that produced them to be used again. However, in conventional gardening operations, most non-toxic materials tend to end up in landfills. This open loop method of recycling food waste sees nutrients taking up valuable space in our landfills. Unfortunately keeping them from making any contributions for hundreds of years.

“Composting” is really only a small step towards a true closed food loop. Human Waste and other forms of excrement are not meant to be composted for health reasons. Compost piles are definitely a step in the direction of a more sustainable future. Composting not only improves soil quality but is also a positive method of returning weeds to your garden efficiently. Experts are also exploring the fact that well-composted soil can prevent various plant-borne and fungal diseases.

Many gardeners prefer to Pseudo-compost. This involves heaping the materials up out of the way so that they can slowly rot and decay. The process is much slower than traditional composting. It may actually become the home for a source of weeds in the end. Adding kitchen waste such as eggshells, coffee grounds, and fruit/vegetable peels can also attract undesirable pests such as raccoons and skunks. Composting not only protects your garden from weeds and vermin but can replace artificial soil amendments over the years. 

Condition Requirements for Composting

4 main conditions that must be met for “Composting” to occur;

Pile Size

The bacteria feeding on your compost pile will produce heat as a by-product. Your compost pile can reach internal temperatures of up to 80 C/175 F. Bacteria that break down your compost piles tend to thrive in this heat. The typical rule of thumb for your compost pile is 1 cubic meter or 3′ x 3′ x 3′. Try to keep your compost piles around this size or larger. 

Air Movement

Aerobic Bacteria, like most other living things on the land, require air to survive. Smaller piles allow for more air movement as long as you stick with the typical cubic meter rule. Using a Plastic or Wood Container with holes on all sides helps with air movement. Mindful gardeners “Turn” their compost regularly to maintain optimal oxygen levels.

The process of “Turning” your pile is simple. Using a spade or fork, you move your compost piles from one container or location to another. The process should be repeated 2 to 3 times every 14 days for the best results. If not enough oxygen is available for your Aerobic Bacteria, they’ll all die off. Anaerobic Bacteria will take over and do the same job as Aerobic Bacteria. However, the Anaerobic Bacteria is much slower and tends to produce an undesirable smell from your compost piles.

Water Availability

Bacteria, like all living things, need water to live, thrive, and reproduce. Overwatering compost piles too much can encourage the growth of Anaerobic Bacteria. When digging into your compost pile, if it appears to be dry 15cm deep, it’s time to water. To water your compost piles properly, use a long stick to poke deep holes into the heap, then put the water into the holes.

Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio

Carbon is well known as the building blocks of all life on our planet, and plants are no exception. Carbon is used to make up the cellulose in a plant’s stem, giving it maximum strength. Nitrogen is another critical element used to make the necessary proteins for your plants. The amounts of Carbon needed are much higher than that of Nitrogen. However, Nitrogen is also naturally available in much smaller volumes than Carbon.

As a rule of thumb, bacteria need a 30:1 ratio to efficiently compost. For every 30 units of Carbon, you need 1 of Nitrogen. Most gardeners try to follow this formula, but it’s not dire if you’re off a bit.

Picking The Right Stuff

The 30:1 C:N ratio is maintained by mixing “Browns” and “Greens” together. For example, “Browns” like Dead Materials, Straw, or Newspapers with “Greens” like Fresh Cut Grass, Banana Peels, and Coffee Grounds. Browns are high in Carbon, just like Greens. However, Greens also act as the Nitrogen source for composting. Browns like Straw have a C:N of 100:1. Where Greens like Coffee Grounds have a C:N of 20:1. Obviously, you should quickly realize you need a lot more Greens than Browns in your compost piles to maintain the 30:1 ratio.

Almost anything alive can be composted. The only real thing you need to worry about is the possibility of contamination by toxic materials. Human Hair is a rich source of Nitrogen, and farmers used to collect it from Barber Shops to use in compost piles. Today, Human Hair is often treated with chemicals you wouldn’t want to put in your compost pile. Meat and Dairy should never be added to your compost pile. The heat can create undesirable smells and attract vermin. It’s also a bad idea to add any Carnivore/Omnivore Feces to your compost pile as they can carry diseases such as Ecoli. Try to avoid things like wood, wood shavings, and sawdust as the C:N ratio is around 600:1. You would need an obscene amount of Greens to maintain your C:N ratio.

Calculating Your C:N Ratio

The table below shows the Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio for a few commonly used materials in compost piles. The most common formula used to reach the 30:1 target is to consider you have 2 Containers. If Container 1 has 2 units of Coffee Grounds at 20:1 and 1 part Dead Leaves at 60:1, you add up the Carbon amounts of the 3 parts and divide by the total number of units. In this case, we would have 20+20+60=100, then 100/3=33.3 or about a 33:1 ratio. The vital thing to remember is you need more Greens than Browns to offset the C:N. This table is not a comprehensive list of all materials you can compost. Though it should help you get started on your Composting Journey!

Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio’s for Compostables
Browns C:N Ratio
Wood Chips/Sawdust 300-600:1
Newspaper 50-200:1
Pine Needles 60-110:1
Straw 70-100:1
Wheat/Oat Straw 80-100:1
Corn Stalks 60:1
Dry Leaves 60:1
Peat Moss 60:1
Horse Manure w/ Straw 60:1
Horse Manure Pure 25-35:1
Greens C:N Ratio
Fruit/Vegetable Waste 10-35:1
Cow Manure Pure 20:1
Coffee Grounds 20:1
Sea/Lake Weeds 20:1
Grass Clippings 20:1
Table Scraps 15:1
Alfalfa Hay 12:1
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