How to Make Compost

First, some notes from Av Singh’s workshop on soil (held on July 19th, 2009):

Roughly speaking, the composition of your soil is as follows: humus (what composting adds back into the soil) comprises about 5%; minerals (held in place by sand, silt and clay) such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous, comprise 45%; finally, air and water comprise about 50% of your soil (with good soil having equal portions of water and air).  But wait, that’s not it!  Of this 5% of humus, 99% of it is dead tissue, roots and leaves, whereas only 1% of humus is bacteria—and yet it is this sliver of life that does the real heavy lifting when it comes to breaking down organic matter into something useful to plants.  That being said, it is easy to see how this sliver of life can be threatened by poor farming practices, such as the use of various “icides” (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, nematides), the use of synthetic fertilizers, by over-tilling and so on.  As Av Singh and many others state, the best remedy for healthy and depleted soils alike… is compost.

Of the 5 billion bacteria in a tablespoon of compost, there are 5000 species of bacteria, 5 km of fungal hyphæ, and various species of protozoa (amoeba, nematode, flagellates, ciliates).  It is this diverse ecosystem that makes compost an (a) indirect fertilizer and (b) an inoculant.  Let us explain briefly what we mean by this.  By adding a greater diversity of microbial life to your soil, you are adding more labor power to the task of decomposition, which in-turn produces more plant nutrients (ammonia).  Synthetic fertilizers (which could be said to be direct fertilizers) are very mobile, and tend to hastily leak out of the soil.  The microbial life of compost, on the other hand, slowly releases plant nutrients throughout the process of decomposition, sustaining useable nitrogen in the soil ecosystem for a longer period of time.  It is in this sense that compost is an indirect fertilizer.  Finally, compost acts as a soil inoculant through the sheer number of beneficial organisms it adds to the soil.  Soils that have been over-disturbed (by “icides,” synthetic fertilizers, over-tilling, etc.) tend to have larger populations of pathogenic microbial life since they grow back faster than beneficial species when degradation has occurred.  Thus, by adding compost to healthy or degraded soils, you are maintaining and rejuvenating the overall soil ecosystem of your garden and/or farm.

Second, a webpost of a pamphlet we distributed at our gathering (a very short introduction to composting):

The Acadia Community Farm’s Guide to Making Compost!

“Keep it simple; make it convenient; and keep yourself motivated until it’s a habit.” – Sharon Jones (Toronto compost activist, neighborhood mum)

Where should I put it?
Largely speaking, where you put your compost bin is up to you… that being said, there are a few guidelines you may want to follow to make life easier: good drainage in the soil below the pile or bin (you don’t want water from puddles beneath the pile to wick up into your compost); protection from fierce winds (you don’t want wind-chill); ease of access for adding materials to the pile; relatively level ground; sun for enclosed bins, or bins in areas where soil drainage is slow; shade for wooden or wire bins, or bins in areas where soil drainage is rapid (keep in mind that you want to be able to control the moisture content of your compost).

How big should it be?
You should aim to have enough green and brown waste to amass a heap at least 3’x3’x3’ in its dimension (with a max. recommended size of 5’x5’x5’).  If you want to make it bigger, the pros recommend that you push a ventilator tube into the middle of the pile to help it breathe.  The main issue with larger compost piles is that their excessive weight compacts the lower layers of the pile, preventing air circulation—leading to conditions that encourage the growth of pathogenic microorganisms (which love anaerobic conditions).

What do I put in it?
Organic materials of two sorts—often referred to as ‘green waste’ and ‘brown waste.’  ‘Green waste’ means any organic material that is, well, usually pretty green looking: typically, it is high in moisture and nitrogen.  Succulent, wet, dense, and sticky… green waste can come from your kitchen’s veggie waste, fresh yard trimmings, fresh manure, and so on.  ‘Brown waste’ means any organic material that is usually yellow or brown, dry, bulky and fluffy.  Dry leaves, straw, hay and sawdust are all high in carbon, for instance.  Somewhere around 20:1 to 30:1 is the magic carbon to nitrogen ratio.  Basically, the more carbon you put into your pile from the get-go, the faster the decomposers can set to work on the organic matter, since carbon is a food source (acting as a carbohydrate), whereas nitrogen provides the protein to allow the growth of more bacteria.  There are many different ways to add these materials together.  You can start with a few shovelfuls of finished compost or humus on the bottom layer, then adding some bulky ‘brown waste’ (to encourage aeration at the bottom) and then layering ‘green waste’ and ‘brown waste’ in thickness of about 5” to 6” like a layer cake.  As you add these layers, moisten them with a little bit of water.  Be careful not to over water (see the ’touch test’ below), since excess water requires the addition of more ‘brown waste’ to ensure a good population of beneficial organisms (aerobic bacteria require good aeration).

What the heck do I do with it (now that this pile is a member of the family)?
It depends on how quickly you want the process of decomposition to work, and what you want to be able to decompose in your compost.  ‘Lazy compost’ requires little or no turning, but will take much longer to decompose.  However, you can’t kill weed seeds or disease organisms in a ‘lazy compost’ since its temperature will not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, if you opt for ‘lazy compost,’ be aware of what you put into it.  ‘Hot compost,’ on the other hand, requires turning and aerating, and gets up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  Feel free to add weeds (even if they have gone to seed… except for noxious weeds such as couch grass, Johnsongrass, bishop’s weed, comfrey, and Jerusalem artichokes, which reproduce readily from the tiniest bit of surviving root or rhizome) and diseased plant wastes since the temperature of ‘hot compost’ can kill weed seeds and diseased organism.  ‘Hot compost’ will also decompose much quicker than ‘lazy compost,’ since by turning and aerating your compost, you stimulate the growth of more decomposers.

The smell test: D’you know the damp, moist, and almost refreshing smell of forest soil?  This is the smell of composted humus, and it is generally what you want to promote.  The reverse of this fragrance would be the acrid and sour smell of an overly compacted and otherwise ‘anaerobic’ handful of soil (anaerobic meaning loss of oxygen due to too much compaction and moisture).  Like baking a cake, making compost is about smelling the end product to ensure its moist and fluffy decadence.

The touch test: D’you know how a rung-out sponge feels to the touch?  It’s moist, but not too moist and this is exactly what you want to aim for with your compost.  It should look and be moist to the touch, but when you squeeze it, no water should come out.  The best moisture content for your pile is between 40% to 60% so if it tends to rain a lot where you live, be sure to cover the pile, and if it tends to be dry where you live, be sure to dig a small hole in the top of your pile to catch rainwater.  You want to be sure to control the moisture content of your pile.

Interesting tips:
– Build your compost onto the earth so that decomposer organisms can migrate up into the pile.
– If you plant elderberry bushes next to your compost bin, you will attract a healthy worm population since they like the taste of its fallen leaves!
– Count on using three to five bushels of raw organic material for every bushel of finished compost you produce (one bushel = eight gallons).

Sources and further reading:
Cullen, Mark and Lorraine Johnson.  The Urban / Suburban Composter: The Complete guide to Backyar, Balcony, and Apartment Composting.  St. Martin’s Press: New York.  1992.
Gershuny, Grace and Joseph Smillie.  The Soul of Soil: A Guide to Ecological Soil Management (2nd ed).  Gaia Services: Quebec.  1986.
Gershuny, Grace.  Start with the Soil: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Improving Soil for Higher Yields, More Beautiful Flowers, and a Healthy, Easy-Care Garden.  Rodale Press: Pennsylvania.  1993.

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The Acadia Community Farm began in the spring of 2008 with the vision of providing local, organic produce to the dining hall at Acadia University, while also serving as a community garden. The Farm has grown to become an educational community centre for the exchange of knowledge surrounding gardening, food, and sustainable agriculture. Explore the site to find out more or stop by the Farm for a visit!

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