From pre-made compost containers to home-made pallet bins to plain old heaps, making compost at home is part science, part art. Regardless of your proclivity for order or chaos, there are a few basic requirements that all compost piles need to thrive.
The Composting Process*
Before you get started, it’s important to understand the five primary variables that must be “controlled” during composting. These include the following:
Feedstock and nutrient balance:
Controlled decomposition requires a proper balance of “green” organic materials (e.g., grass clippings, food scraps, manure), which contain large amounts of nitrogen, and “brown” organic materials (e.g., dry leaves, wood chips, branches), which contain large amounts of carbon but little nitrogen. Obtaining the right nutrient mix requires experimentation and patience and is part of the art and science of composting.
Grinding, chipping, and shredding materials increases the surface area on which the microorganism can feed. Smaller particles also produce a more homogeneous compost mixture and improve pile insulation to help maintain optimum temperatures (see below). If the particles are too small, however, they might prevent air from flowing freely through the pile.
Microorganisms living in a compost pile need an adequate amount of moisture to survive. Water is the key element that helps transports substances within the compost pile and makes the nutrients in organic material accessible to the microbes. Organic material contains some moisture in varying amounts, but moisture also might come in the form of rainfall or intentional watering.
Turning the pile, placing the pile on a series of pipes, or including bulking agents such as wood chips and shredded newspaper all help aerate the pile. Aerating the pile allows decomposition to occur at a faster rate than anaerobic conditions. Care must be taken, however, not to provide too much oxygen, which can dry out the pile and impede the composting process.
Microorganisms require a certain temperature range for optimal activity. Certain temperatures promote rapid composting and destroy pathogens and weed seeds. Microbial activity can raise the temperature of the pile’s core to at least 140° F. If the temperature does not increase, anaerobic conditions (i.e., rotting) occur. Controlling the previous four factors can bring about the proper temperature.
Ready to get started composting in your backyard?
The Boulder County Resource Conservation Division wants to help backyard composters be successful. To that end they conduct composting workshops in the Spring and Fall. You can check the schedule here.