27 October, 2019

Notes on Composting

Benefits of compost

Recycling – keeping plant materials out of the landfills – keeps landfills from filling up too fast, and keeps the sun's energy out of the landfill
Builds soil structure and fertility

Absolute Minimum Needed to Start a Compost Pile
Stuff to break down
Place to put it

Composting Piles and Methodologies

No pile – dig it into the soil (trench composting)
Plastic bins
Wire bins
Wooden bins (three)
No bins
Collect every waste you can for composting from your own house first
newsprint, tea bags, coffee grounds, veggie and fruit trimmings, food that died in the fridge; no dog or cat waste, bones and unused meat, these are poor choices, they break down slowly and/or they attract unwanted beasts.

Check with neighbors for their free waste i.e. coffee grounds, leaves,
find local waste that's free – wood chips, sawdust, Starbucks coffee grounds, scrounge your neighborhood for waste streams that could prove useful – another's trash could be your treasure


Commercial products that contain microbes to inoculate your compost pile. Most research shows limited use as the number of microbes multiply to full capacity in short order, but they would do that (more slowly) without the inoculation. No matter the claims made by the sales force for such products, most independent research indicate little, if any, positive long term effect from such products.

After too little water, the most common failure in compost piles is a lack of nitrogen – too little materials with not enough nitrogen to facilitate heating up or quick decomposition; all the detritivores need nitrogen to build their protoplasm and do to their work. Additional inputs of nitrogen will correct a slow pile, assuming that lack of water is not the problem.


Alfalfa – one of my favorites, sold as livestock feed in feed stores. One bale sells for under $20. It has some nitrogen and absorbs, and holds onto moisture making it an excellent addition to a compost pile. Alfalfa serves as a good compost stimulant and activator. Alfalfa sold as animal feed in dehydrated pellets or a meal works just as well too.
Apple pomace – any pomace – leftovers from crushing fruits for their juice. Will attract yellow jackets and other wasps so cover them with leaves or soil or straw or hay.
Banana residue – makes a compost pile go whoopee – seems well supplied with nitrogen and guarantee lots of bacterial activity
Beet waste – if you should move near a sugar beet processing plant – many books will recommend beet waste – be careful, though, now that GMO sugar beets have begun to be used.
Bonemeal – high in phosphorus if you find yourself within striking distance of a slaughterhouse. Ditto for blood meal. Five pound bags should last longer than the printing on the label.
Citrus wastes – from your table is sometimes denigrated as a compost pile component, but it is good in nutrients and breaks down quickly. If you are near a factory producing orange and other citrus products – sometimes available from some feed stores – the more peel the more nitrogen the final product will contain. They can be hard to break down.
Cocoa Bean Shells – for those that live near a chocolate factory – they are rich in nitrogen and benefit the soil no matter how they are used. They do not break down quickly so I have used them as pathway mulch. I have heard they are poisonous to dogs although I used them whilst living with two dogs and neither dog showed the slightest interest in them. They smell great, so you might find yourself gorging on chocolate as a result.
Coffee wastes – earthworms love them and they break down nicely. Slightly acidic they make a good mulch around any acid loving plant (skipping the compost pile altogether). Mix them with other OM as they hold moisture well. If allowed to sour, they will attract fruit flies.
Cottonseed meal – commercially available as fertilizer – used to be a great source of nitrogen but most of it is now GMO, as well being sprayed with insecticides of all kinds. I would skip it these days unless you can find a source of organic cottonseed meal. It is one of the most dependable long term organic sources for nitrogen, a rare thing for an organic garden.
Garbage – will be one of your most consistent and reliable components in your compost pile. Do not use meat craps, fat or bones in your pile for they take too long to fully break down and are very attractive to scavenging animals. When put into your compost pile, always mix with absorbent material like dead leaves, straw or hay and cover them completely with dirt or other substantive materials to prevent smells and discourage flies.
Grape wastes – from wineries, producing waste products in the way of skin residue, seeds and stalks by the ton in pressing season. Not a lot of nutrition but the bulk of organic plant matter may be useful to achieve a rapid hot compost
Grass clippings – most of us have these or can easily obtain them from neighbors who have them. Exceedingly rich in nitrogen, and will heat up on their own if put into a pile, but, because of their shape and high moisture content can pack down, rotting and turn slimy and smelly on you. Add grass clippings in small layers and mix with leaves, garbage and or other materials. Dried grass clippings will have lost most of their nitrogen, treat like hay or straw. If the source lawn is being treated with herbicides, use with care – although the composting process, if done properly, will remove most of those residues.
Hair – if you can get an amount of it is probably the most concentrated source of nitrogen you can get for free. Six to seven pounds of hair can contain as much nitrogen as 100 to 200 pounds of manure. Hair will decompose rapidly although it may pack down and shed water – mix with other materials to prevent that. Available for free from barbershops or hair salons.
Hay – you can buy a bale from a feed store – may contain weed seeds unless it was cut early – how would you know? If you can find spoiled hay from a farmer it will be free or at low cost.
Leaves – very compostable and available for free to most of us. Leaves, because of the extensive roots of trees that forage deep into the subsoil for nutrients, are a superior component in your compost. Pound for pound, leaves provide twice the mineral content of manure. They are low in nitrogen and may pack down slowing break down, but mixed with a good source of nitrogen and kept aerated, they are a fabulous resource.
Manure – used with discretion can be an important part of a compost pile. If you have chickens or rabbits (or any farm animal) I suggest you use it in your compost pile; but I do not encourage importing fresh animal manures if you do not know the animal. Many of our farm animals today get unregulated dosages of medications and that will be expressed through their feces and urine, furthermore, most animals today are not pastured and their manure will have high concentrations of urine in the manure – urine is high in salts. If you do have a source of manure, use it in the compost pile, get a hot pile and let it break down thoroughly before incorporating these items into your soil. If it smells like animal poop, it is still too fresh.
Paper – you can use paper of many kinds even those with colored ink and slick pages. The secret, and the problem, for using paper waste is they need to be shredded or chopped into fine bits for successful incorporation into the pile. I have used paper from an office shredder, but it was difficult to wet and until wetted was airborne faster than corn pollen. Wetted newsprint is excellent. Use like straw.
Pine needles – in the south it's called pine straw, but they break down super slowly. They are highly acidic and that means they should not be used intemperately. They have been found effective at controlling Fusarium wilts.
Rice hulls – a great source of potash and break down readily in your compost pile. They are an excellent soil conditioner, are loved in the compost heap and are a desirable mulch. Many soil conditioners contain large amounts of rice hulls for the 'fluffy.'
Sawdust – available from lumber yards or furniture refinishers. It is valuable as a source of a carbon and helps allow good air penetration into the compost pile. It is slow to break down – the robbing of nitrogen that is often a source of concern for gardeners, most research (my own anecdotal experience included) shows that is not a credible problem.
Seaweed – free and available on the beach, but, some folks worry about the radioactive level since the recent nuclear power plant problems in Japan. It has a similar nutrient level as manure, but should be composted while fresh. While I have worried about salt content, I see no mention of it in most composting literature. Seaweed contains a multitude of micronutrients essential to human and plant health. Mix with other materials and it will decompose quickly. Kelp meal can be used as an activator in compost.
Soil – not an essential component in a working compost pile, it can prove helpful. Soil can be used as an inoculate to imbue your pile with microbial activity. Most gardeners, though, add a small amounts of finished compost to a new pile as an activator, which is probably a better strategy.
Straw – adds few nutrients but does add organic material and helps aerate a compost pile. It adds carbon to the pile and is a sort of plant food. If using a lot of straw, add commensurate amounts of nitrogen. Straw that has already begun to break down is a wonderful addition to any compost pile.
Tea leaves – high content of nitrogen (about 4.15%) and breaks down easily.
Weeds – non-perennial weeds can be be placed in the compost pile as long as they are not seeding. Some weeds, like mallow, have an incredible tap root and bring materials from the subsoil up which is in the plant leaves and stems making their contribution to the compost pile much more desirable. However, some weeds, like Bermuda grass, which also has a tremendous root system (Bermuda roots are known to go as far as 27 feet deep!) will only grow in your compost pile – don't risk it.
Wood ashes – a valuable source off potash. Use cautiously for they have a strong alkalizing effect and might also increase soil salinity.
Wood chips – useful in the garden and compost pile. They do break down slowly, but even as they break down they increase the moisture holding capacity and aerate the soil. If your soil has enough nitrogen to begin with, decomposing wood chips should not adversely affect your soil's nitrogen availability.

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