Long ago I took a master composter class in Denver. I think I got a certificate, but I composted it sometime along the way. Back then, they said that 25% of landfills are composted of yard wastes. I did not want to contribute to filling the dumps. So I decided to take up a hobby that I would enjoy and that would benefit the earth, also.
Composting turned out to be quite fun. As the leaves began to fall each year, when my daughter was small, we would collect between 100-200 bags of leaves. We would leave about ½ of them in bags, & then empty the remaining bags on top of this base to make a ginormous pile. Then we would invite all the local kids over & have a neighborhood leaf jump. Kids would jump onto a huge pile of leaves from our large maple tree, or from a nearby swingset. Parents would sip coffee and other adult beverages and watch the kids frolic in the pile. (Inevitably, everyone ended up in the pile.)
After the kids were done, we would put the broken-down leaves back into bags or into wire cylinders (aka tomato cages) for storage. I would then use this for my composting operations until the end of the next summer.
There are many approaches to composting. All are rewarding. You can spend as little or as much as you like on equipment. All you need to know are a few basic principles. But the main thing to know is that composting will happen no matter what you do. You can speed up the process if you wish. I would recommend finding some information on the internet. Here are a few handy sites:
I originally made composting an aerobic activity. I turned my piles frequently, speeding up the process. As I have gotten older, I ascribe more to the LazyMan’s way of composting. The LazyMan’s Tao tends to conserve energy whenever possible. It is also the cheapest method, as there is no need to buy special materials.
- A rake, hoe, pitchfork, or Mattock Pick is needed to turn the pile.
- Something to make a bin out of – hogwire, snowfence, or (6) 4-way hardwood pallets – you can figure out the configuration. You can sometimes find such materials in alleys, dumpsters, construction sites, etc. (You can just have a free-standing pile, but I like the tidiness of containing the pile in something.)
- A water hose
- A soil thermometer
- Carbon – This stuff is mostly brown
- Nitrogen – This stuff is mostly green
- Oxygen – The stuff that everything needs to breathe
- Volume – you need a minimum of one cubic yard (3’x3’x3’) for a free-standing pile
- Surface area – break up your stuff into little pieces, if possible
- Water – all the small (i.e., microscopic) critters need water to grow.
- Carbon is mostly brown stuff. Leaves work well. You will need about 20-30 times as much carbon as nitrogen in your piles.
- Nitrogen is mostly green. Lawn clippings, table scraps, etc.
- Oxygen is needed for the processes to function. This is the main reason why you turn the piles.
- Water – when you build a pile, you want the consistency to be about the same as a wet bath towel. Too much water and the pile will become anaerobic (i.e., it will smell bad because you do not have enough oxygen.)
- The smaller you break up the pieces in your pile, the more area the little buggers that break them down will have to live. This is a good thing. It is like erecting tiny condominiums for beneficial microbes to live in.
- Volume – don’t make your piles over about 5’ tall.
- Add the above ingredients together in layers of 6-8 inches. The amount of materials will change with each compost pile and as you get more familiar with the process.
- Throw a few handfuls of dirt &/or old compost onto each layer. Forget about buying fancy “starters” or other ingredients.
- Turn the piles when you feel like it. If you want to speed the process, turn them often (1-2 weeks). “Turning” means pulling all the matter out of the pile, placing the bottom on the top, or thoroughly mixing everything again. Add water if needed.
- If you have a soil thermometer (it has a shaft about 24” long), check to see how hot your piles get. You need to get the internal temperature up to about 135-140 degrees or more for 2-3 days to kill weed seeds and diseases. Turn the piles when it gets less than 120 degrees. Add some nitrogen as you turn it (see below) to get it cooking again.
- As a LazyMan, I ascribe to mixing about ½ a cup of household ammonia with 2 gallons of water & sprinkling it on each layer. Ammonia is heavy nitrogen. This way, you can forget the exact combination of carbon to nitrogen. For a 3’ x 4’ x 5’ pile, I will use about 1 ½ quarts of ammonia. However, be careful. I have gotten the internal heat on my piles over 160 degrees with this method. This will burn the skin. & I have been told that the piles can actually catch on fire and/or smolder from the inside out.
- When you collect leaves, check the bags for trash, sticks, old rose canes, etc. – especially if you are going to jump in the leaves.
- Diversity is a good thing. Use may different materials of many different sizes in your piles.
- Don’t over-water. If it gets too wet you will have anerobic stinkiness (that’s the technical term for suffocating microbes). Then you will have to turn the pile to let it dry out & get oxygen to it. Definitely not the LazyMan’s way.
- The LazyMan only turns his piles 2-3 times. I never take my piles all the way down to the humic material. I usually use the almost-done piles as mulch on top of my flower beds and garden. If you want humus, turn your piles more frequently and let them brew longer. & be prepared to strain them through some sort of strainer. If you leave them long enough, they will be populated by earthworms. If you leave them too long, they will sprout grubs. So check the insides of the pile after about 6 weeks.
- Sometimes I place a perforated PVC pipe in my piles to get oxygen into it without turning it. Or you can place a metal pipe or a stick in the middle of the pile & simply stir it around to make a hole. Or you can just leave the pile alone & let composting happen.
- After a few weeks, the pile will shrink to about ¾ of its original size. That is part of the natural process.
- Avoid dairy, oils, meat, diseased plants, really noxious weeds and weed seeds. You can compost dead chickens if you know how, but you will have to research better methods than I have stated here. The internet is a wonderful resource.
- Don’t use carnivorous animal feces, including dog droppings, feline scat, or dragon fewmets in your piles. Manure from grass-eaters (cows, horses, elephants) are okay to supplement your nitrogen. But be wary of animal manures, as you may end up with seeds in your compost/mulch if you do not get it hot enough to kill them. Rabbit manure is the best for compost piles, as they are seldom fed hormones or seeds.
I have only scratched the surface of composting. The main thing to remember is that compost will happen, no matter what you do. There are incredible universes beneath our perceptions that will take your moldy sandwich and convert it into sweet smelling soil amendments. The earth’s been going through these cycles for a long time. Some may even argue that you are part of that cycle now.
Collecting leaves and the annual neighborhood leaf jump became a wonderful family tradition at our house. My grown daughter still calls to ask how the leaf collection is going. This fall ritual created a lot of fond memories. Composting is something you can do for yourself & for the environment.
& even the LazyMan needs a hobby.