30 July 2008

How to make compost

We make compost, year round, in this corner of our garden. We also have compost in the chook pen, and we have a worm farm. We used to enclose the compost on three sides but we found it was easier for us to take away some of those sides to allow easier access when turning the heap.

Compost is the end result of organic matter that breaks down and decomposes. Organic matter, in this context, is anything that was once alive and is usually things like vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, newspaper and cardboard, outer leaves of vegetables, leaves, hair, straw etc. Just about any leafy product may go into compost, but never include diseased leaves like those from tomato bushes as that will just keep that disease in your garden and spread it around. Diseased plants are best put into a plastic bag, sealed up, left in the sun for two weeks, then put into the rubbish bin.

There are many different ways of making compost. The purists make sure their compost bin is a certain size to ensure it heats up - that encourages decomposition and kills some weed seeds. Other people use enclosed at the top, open at the bottom bins. This type of composting relies on anaerobic organisms. I have found that using one of these bins to make compost generally results in a very wet mix and it needs more brown material than green. We have one of these bins but it's rarely used here.

There are three important requirements for making compost:
  • Aeration
  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon
It sounds complicated, doesn't it? Well, it can be, but it can also be easy if you get your mix right.

Aeration is simply moving the compost ingredients around to introduce air into the mix. You could do this by turning the compost over with a fork, by using a tumbler that spins the compost around or by building your compost heap around a wide plumbers pipe that would allow air to go deep within the heap. Generally, it's best to turn the compost with a fork about week or two. The more air you get into the mix, the fast you'll make compost.

Of course, you will make compost simply by piling a heap of organic matter in a corner and waiting for a long time - about 6 - 9 months. The heap will very slowly decompose with no outside help. But if you're wanting compost for your garden, generally you would give it a helping hand and turn it as much as you can. Depending on your climate, turning a compost heap that has been made with the right ingredients, will give you compost in about two or three months.

Nitrogen is wet green vegetable waste, scraps, lawn clippings and old vegetables. It's the stuff that's still juicy or slimy, all that waste that hasn't yet dried out. Nitrogen comes from the fresh kitchen scraps you'll have most days.

Carbon is dry waste like straw, newspaper, cardboard and dried leaves.

You compost will need about three parts carbon to one part nitrogen and all the ingredients should be as small as possible. If you have big pieces of cabbage or pumpkin, or sheets of newspaper, get your spade and cut them into smaller pieces.

These are all links to other sites. I've checked the information there and recommend it to you.

There is a very good slideshow here with a step by step guide to making compost.

Making compost in a warm climate.

Several methods of making compost.

18 day compost

Adding the manure of vegetarian animals and birds, including chickens, to your compost will help it break down much faster. So will adding comfrey or yarrow leaves. In summer, I make comfrey tea and pour it over the compost heap. It helps it along very nicely.


So let's recap here.
  1. To make good compost, you'll need ¼ wet, nitrogen, green waste, like lawn clippings or vegetable scraps. Add that to ¾ dry, carbon waste like straw, dried leaves or shredded newspaper.
  2. Add the ingredients in layers where you have a lot of dried carbon mixed with a smaller amount of green wet leaves.
  3. Add some manure or comfrey/yarrow leaves.
  4. Wet this with some water.
  5. Mix.
  6. Shape into a neat pile and leave it.
  7. Add to the pile as often as you can, making sure you always have more dry than wet waste.
  8. Keep the heap moist, not wet, and turn it as often as possible.
If you notice the compost has a terrible smell, you've got too much green wet waste in there. Add some shredded newspaper or other dry carbon waste and mix it in.

If the compost looks dry and isn't decomposing, add more wet green waste, or a sprinking of water from the hose, and mix.

If you have a lot of wet weather, it would be a good idea to cover your compost heap with a tarp or plastic to keep some of the rain out.

This is a compost heap we just added to over about 6 months and never turned.

Your compost is ready to use when everything has lost its shape and has blended in together. It will look like dark loose soil with little bits in it. It will smell like soil. When you have this excellent additive, either add it to a new garden bed and dig it in, or use it in the planting hole in the garden bed to plant your seedlings in.

This is the compost after six months and several days of rain. We mixed this into our garden soil before planting up a new bed.

You can never have too much compost, so when you successfully make one lot of compost, make more the next time. Compost will add fertility and health to your garden but it will also help you cut down a lot on the amount of organic waste you throw out. If you're serious about your vegetable garden, this is one skill that will help you produce good healthy food for your table.

ROSIE UPDATE: We haven't taken her to the vet yet. She seemed much improved yesterday and has started eating properly and she slept through the night last night. We'll keep watching her and see if we can nurse her back to good health without going to the vet. I'll keep you all posted. Thank you all for your concern, both Hanno and I appreciate it.

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