Turning It From Garbage to Nutrients: Compost Quick Facts and Tips
Activators, Worms, Microorganisms
You’ve built or bought a composter. You have some dry leaves and you’ll be adding green materials (lawn clippings, kitchen waste, plant scraps) all summer. To some extent, you’ll be layering these materials to provide both a balanced diet and the best mix for air and water penetration. Also if you want to try compost activators go ahead they won’t hurt.
How can you be sure that the composting will start? Do you need to buy a “compost activator” or a batch of worms? What if there aren’t any microorganisms in the mix? No. No. and, Don’t Worry.
The microorganism essential to composting are plentiful in nature. (That’s why mom always told us to wash our hands after playing outside!) If you’re starting with leaves and other natural materials, you’ve got bacteria and fungi that are eager to help you make compost. And, if you want to give the mix a little boost, one excellent and free additive is simply a shovel full of good garden soil. Assuming that it hasn’t been polluted with nasty chemicals, the soil is full of microbes that are eager to devour the goodies in your compost pile.
Worms can significantly improve your composting effectiveness, just as worms in the garden can improve soil tilth. My open bin compost piles have a healthy supply of worms, probably because I occasionally add a shovel full of good garden soil to my bins.
Worm composting, or Vermicomposting, is a separate form of composting, which is discussed later in this article.
Critical Mass – When is Enough Enough?
For efficient hot composting, you need to have a critical mass to generate a heat core. Most experienced composters agree that you need a minimum of 1 cubic foot of raw materials, of course, more is better.
As soon as decomposition begins, the volume of the pile will decrease. You might be tempted to add more materials; but, as previously mentioned, this resets the clock on that batch to “Day 1.” You’ll have much better success if you refrain from adding raw materials to your batch of working compost, and simply start a new batch with new raw materials. That’s why it’s essential to have at least two chambers, regardless of the type of composter you use. Single chamber composters are often called batch composters; don’t continuously add materials to a single chamber.
Size Matters – Smaller is Better
While it’s nice to have a larger pile, to develop a good heat core, and to produce a nice quantity of compost, the raw materials should be shredded whenever possible. Smaller particles are simply easier to mix and easier for the little microbes to digest. Of course, the micro bugs don’t eat the whole particle, but smaller particles of raw materials means that you’ll have more surface area for the millions of microbes to do their work.
So, in summary, you should aim for “big heap, small particles.”
Turn, Turn, Turn –
You’ll maximize your composting efforts if you continuously turn, or mix, the heap. Mixing your heap will help to keep the browns and greens in balance, will distribute moisture, and add essential air (oxygen) to the mixture. The core (the inside) of the compost heap is always hotter and is the center of activity. The outside is generally less active and much cooler. To increase the efficiency of the composting process, mix the heap to bring more of the raw materials from the outside to the core. Bring more food and water to the busy little micro bugs on the inside.
Worm Composting (Vermi-composting)
Worm composting is the process of using worms in a container to digest kitchen vegetable scraps. The worms (red wigglers) eat the kitchen scraps and cast off their waste to produce a very rich fertilizer. Most worm composting is done indoors, usually in one’s basement. You’ll need to build or buy a worm composting “farm” if you want to dispose of your kitchen scraps by vermi-composting. Search for “worm composting” online to find a nearby provider.
Compost Tea – Yum!
Don’t drink it, unless you’re a houseplant or garden plant. Compost tea is simply the result of soaking a bag full of compost in a bucket full of water for an hour or so. The water soluble nutrients and beneficial microorganisms leach out of the compost, resulting in a brown liquid that can be used to water houseplants, your lawn, or garden plants. Compost tea will give your plants a boost of needed nutrients and help to prevent a lot of plant diseases; but, the tea won’t do as much to improve the soil structure as using fully decomposed compost.