Easy Organic Compost

October 4th, 2007 by david laferney Leave a reply »
  • Compost is the best way to improve your soil
  • If you use compost you probably won’t need to use fertilizer
  • Compost doesn’t harm beneficial organisms like earthworms (chemicals do)
  • If you have a yard, you are already doing most of the work to make compost
  • Compost is free, easy, and saves energy
  • You can start a compost pile any time you have material for it

a compost pile in a wire hoop
3 day old compost already 155 degrees F.
This compost pile is already 155 degrees F after only 3 days! A hot pile like this does a good job of killing weed seeds and disease organisms.

How to do it

  • Use your lawn mower to chop up leaves, and then go over them again and use the grass catcher to collect the chopped leaves. If you don’t want to chop up your leaves you certainly don’t have to, but you won’t have to empty the grass catcher nearly as often if you do, and your compost will have a much finer texture.
  • Use your lawn mower/grass catcher to collect grass clippings.
  • Combine 3 parts leaves with 1 part grass clippings in layers to build your compost pile. I use hoops of wire mesh fencing to contain my compost piles, but it will work fine if you just pile it up without any kind of container or bin. Don’t get too hung up on that 3 to 1 ratio, it’s just a rough guideline. It’s fine to just judge by eye – no need to measure.
  • Your pile should heat up within a few days, if not, it is most likely too dry – add water until the pile is moist through and through. If your materials are quite dry sprinkle each layer with water as you build the pile.
  • Once the pile has heated up and cooled back down mix the pile using a rotor tiller if you have one, otherwise turn it using a pitch fork or shovel – if you aren’t in any hurry at all then don’t bother turning (mixing) the pile. Given enough time your compost will finish anyway. However turning the pile just one time will greatly speed the process, and improve the results.
  • If you are in a hurry, then turn the pile every few days as soon as it starts to cool down – this will make what is often called a fast/hot compost pile, and is very good for killing weed seeds and disease organisms.
  • When the pile will no longer heat up after turning it your compost is finished. If you are making slow compost then when it looks well decomposed it’s ready.
  • Compost that you make like this is far better than that which is available at home centers. In many cases store bought compost is made primarily out of bark mulch and will harm your soil in the near term by tyeing up most of the soil nitrogen.

My yard has a lot of trees in it so every fall I have to remove leaves, and in the spring I have to mow grass every 5-7 days. Since I have to remove the leaves and mow the lawn anyway I’m already doing most of the work involved in making compost. By putting together my grass clippings and leaves, I make a great balanced compost that finishes quickly, and is a great soil amendment. I don’t use any fancy store-bought compost bins or “compost starters” and I don’t do a lot of work turning the compost (unless I just want to). I also don’t go about collecting compostable materials. Although I probably would if I didn’t have a big yard, because even though I make a pretty large quantity of compost using this method, there are so many uses for it that it’s never too much. For a compost pile to decompose reasonably fast you need to have a mixture of high carbon materials (dry leaves), high nitrogen materials (green grass clippings), air and moisture. The bulk of my compost pile is made up of grass clippings and leaves, but I also throw in other compostables as they become available. If you don’t care how long it takes for your compost to finish then you don’t really have to worry much about what amount and kind of materials you use – just pile ’em up in an out of the way place and wait for it to decompose.

Compostables include just about any plant materials from your yard or garden, although woody materials like branches or tough pruning debris will take a long time to break down, and probably should be avoided. Other compostable materials include – hair, livestock manure from any herbivorous animals, egg shells, blood meal, cottonseed meal, peanut hulls, rice hulls, crop residue, straw and hay, stable bedding, coffee grounds, newspaper and cardboard (although using things like this will compromise efforts to be “organic”), pine needles – use your imagination. As mentioned before, woody materials take a long time to break down – years. If you do use wood products like sawdust, branches, or bark mulch you should be aware that if you add these materials to your soil before they are fully decomposed they will absorb and tie up a large amount of the nitrogen in your soil and significantly lower the fertility, and they tend to be highly acidic.

Pretty much any organic material will break down into compost if given enough time, but there are a few things you should avoid – meat, flesh, bones or fat of any kind – feces from any animal that eats meat, especially from dogs, cats, or people – Never use these at all because of severe risk of disease. Also avoid; large amounts of watery fruits or vegetables such as tomatoes, oranges, cucumbers, melons, etc – large quantities of prepared food – oil or grease – anything that might draw flies, rodents, or pets. The problem with most of these materials is that they will either become infested with fly larva or take too long to break down, or they will attract varmints, are hazardous to your health or all of the above.

Vegetables (including the watery ones listed above) and non-meat table scraps can be added in small quantities to the middle of a “hot” compost pile without problems.

What do you do with all of this Compost once you make it?

  • Work it into your soil at planting time for any plant
  • Use as a mulch to suppress weeds while increasing fertility
  • Mix with equal parts of peat moss and pearlite or vermiculite for outdoor potting mix.
  • The area around a compost pile is a great place to find fishing worms.
  • Add as a side dressing (on top of the ground) just as you would use chemical fertilizer for ornamentals.
  • Make “Compost Tea” (liquid fertilizer) by soaking a cloth or mesh bag full of compost in a bucket of water.
  • Making compost reduces the need for petroleum based and other chemical fertilizers so we don’t have to send as many soldiers to secure our supply of oil.
  • Using compost helps to tie up carbon into the soil instead of going back into the atmosphere as CO2, and helps to prevent global warming.
  • Compost doesn’t pollute our water supplies or cause nasty algae blooms like chemical fertilizer.
  • Food grown using compost and other organic methods tastes better and is better for you.

Addendum – Can You Start a Compost Pile in the Winter – Will it Compost?

It is absolutely OK to start one in the winter – as long as it’s big enough.  I just finished putting one together on Saturday (December 27), yesterday (Jan 1)  it was 150 degrees about 10 inches in – almost hot enough to scald my hand.  You can literally heat a house with a big pile like this.

The outer layers insulate the rest of the pile so that it can heat up, so a big pile does better in cold weather than a small pile.  Minimum size?  2.5 – 3 ft. outside dimension.  If your pile is much smaller it might not heat up in cold weather.

If you don’t have enough material to make a pile that big you can get a bale or two of straw or hay – old or spoiled is fine –  and 2-3 pounds of blood meal (or other high nitrogen organic material) per bale to mix with your other ingredients and it will stretch what you have, and make good compost – a little bit stringy, but still good.

With a small pile you really should turn it as soon as it starts to cool down to keep it’s metabolism up. Make sure you moisten the layers as you build – especially if you use hay or straw.  Once it’s going, you can add additional material as you get it by burying it in the hot compost.

If you don’t want to do all of that, then just save your ingredients until you have enough, or the weather warms up.  Put the greens (high nitrogen) in one pile and the browns  (high fiber/carbon) in another until you are ready to combine them.


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