The LazyMan’s Tao to Composting

It is fall on the Front Range.  As Autumn paints the trees in myriad colors, my attention turns to football, roasting chiles, and of course, composting.

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:

Purdue University’s How To and The Sierra Club

I originally made composting an aerobic activity.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.

Equipment needed:

  • A rake, hoe, pitchfork, or Mattock Pick is needed to turn the pile.
  • Gloves
  • 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

The Recipe:

  • 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.

The Skinny:

  • 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.

Methodology

  • 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.

Some tips

  • 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.

10 Comments

  1. Thank you Mark for the composting education…what a process…I had no idea!

  2. I hate to admit that the only thing my garden does not have is a compost pile. Maybe because I am a LazyWoman and thought the task might be difficult to start. I am now going to follow these steps! You listed a lot of good tips, like adding ammonia.
    I recently acquired a rabbit and quickly realized that every garden needs one. A rabbit is a natural composter. They eat the stuff you would throw away, like beets tops, and their manure can be be added to amend the soil.

  3. Great post Mark. I have to make sure my Husband reads this. A true city boy, he started composting for the first time at a house we were staying at when we were on vacation. Much to my amusement,he was fascinated to learn that food waste could actually “turn into soil”. You explain the process much better than I could explain it to him. Thanks for the tips!

  4. This is really helpful because we started composting this year and haven’t had great success because we’ve made just about every error you listed – not enough water, not enough leaves, and attracting racoons and bears, but we’re starting to get it right. We’ve started adding newspapers/paper towels, coffee filters and other items. By the way, what are dragon fewmets? Pet iguana droppings?

    • I believe that dragon fewmets are excrements from a dragon – a rarely seen (but very real) magical creature. This form of scat is very difficult to come by so I wouldn’t worry about it if you don’t include it in your compost pile! Dragons can be very tricky sometimes…

  5. Informative and fun post. Every homeowner can learn from this information.

  6. thanks mark for the composting 101 class. very informative. might have to try this!

  7. LOVED IT! I remember jumping in leaves when I was little with all of the neighborhood kids. It was so much fun! I remember one time in particular when a friend jumped from the huge silver maple in the backyard into the pile of leaves. Good times. And it’s so true! Compost makes any garden better. It is environmentally friendly, it doesn’t cost as much money as buying pre-packaged compost does, and it makes your plants happy :).

  8. Thought of this article this weekend when I was pulling out all of my dead tomato plants. I actually filled my trash can with the plants and then decided to pull them back out and run my lawn mower over them, bagged it and threw it into the compost. Worked great and saved some space in the landfill!

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