You're looking for a combination of ingredients that will provide the right living conditions for the microorganisms and bacteria that break down the materials in the compost pile. This tiny work force of actimomycetes (act-TIN-OH-my-SEE-tees) must have food, water and oxygen to do their job. They need nitrogen (N) in order to use the carbohydrates or carbon (C) materials as food.
Produce trimmings are good sources of Nitrogen (N).
What about putting URINE in the compost pile?
Do it. According to wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, urine is sterile and contains large amounts of urea, an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Recommended dilution: 10-15 parts water to 1 part urine for application growing season. Urine is also a good source of phosphorus and potassium, and is widely considered as good as or better than commercially-available chemical fertilizers. Urine is also used in composting to increase the nitrogen content of the mulch, accelerating the composting process and increasing its final nutrient values.
Carbon (C) materials include: Straw, dried leaves, sawdust (in small amounts), wood chips (also in small amounts), and shredded newspaper, cardboard and brown bags. One of the best and easiest combinations to come by occurs in the fall. Mix 3 parts dried leaves to 1 part green grass clippings to make a compost that is light, airy and fine. Now that's gourmet!
Gourmet compost: 3 parts leaves + 1 part grass clippings.
Materials you DON'T want to add to a compost pile include: meat scraps, oily products such as salad dressings, peanut butter and mayonnaise, pet litter and food, branches and other large woody materials, slick magazine pages, and waxed cardboard.
If you live near a coastal community, kelp and seaweed is a must-have ingredient. Pound per pound, kelp supplies more minerals than any other material on the planet. In the garden, it also aerates the soil and makes an excellent mulch around potato plants, fruit-bearing shrubs, bulbs and perennials. And, contrary to popular belief, seaweed does not add harmful salts to the garden.
Kelp is what I call a "neutral" ingredient, in that it doesn't fit in the nitrogen or the carbon category. Yet, it benefits every compost pile by adding fluff.
Step #2: Stir your compost ingredients
Once you assemble your ingredients, you're ready to build your compost pile. Here are some basic guidelines:
- Work with a minimum size of 3x3x5 feet. (If you live in a milder climate, then 3x3x3 feet is large enough). The key is to make a compost pile large enough to retain heat and prevent ingredients from drying out. Expect temperatures of 120 to 160 degrees (F), which is enough to kill most weed seeds and pests.
- Use an enclosure, either ready-built, or one make of heavy wire screen, wood pallets, etc.
- Coarse materials should be chopped or shredded.
- Build the pile in layers, like a cake, alternating nitrogen and carbon materials.
- Hose down the layers with water. The ingredients should feel like a damp sponge.
Step #3: Let your compost cook
Turn the pile every 4 to 7 days to aerate it and to provide the microorganisms with fresh food. With tumblers, simply give it a spin occasionally. For bin enclosures, use a pitchfork to turn the pile, moving the inside materials to the outside, and the outside materials to the inside--just like folding cake batter. This is a good upper body workout.
How do you know when the compost is done?
The compost pile is done cooking when it no longer warms up within a few days of turning it. Incidentally, the pile will shrink to about half of its original size.
Troubleshooting the compost pile
With a little practice, you'll be able to read the symptoms and know what to do to correct the problem. Here are some common problems and their solutions:
Problem: The compost pile doesn't get very hot, even though it has enough materials.
Possible Solution: You might need to add more nitrogen ingredients such as green grass clippings or manure to correct the nitrogen to carbon ratio. Make sure the ingredients are damp. Too dry, and they won't start cooking.
Problem: The compost heap heats up and cools down like it's supposed to, but a lot of the materials are large and not broken down.
Possible Solution: Because the materials are big and chunky, they don't provide enough surface area for the microorganisms to finish their work. Chop the materials as best you can. A Crocodile Dundee knife, or machete, works great for this.
Problem: Whew, the compost pile has a strong odor.
Possible Solution: The pile is undergoing what's called "anaerobic decomposition." Anaerobic means "without oxygen" which is why it smells like the beach at low tide. You need to add introduce oxygen back into the pile by turning it at least once a week.
Problem: Animals on the loose!
Possible Solution: If dogs, mice, rats, cats or raccoons are getting into to your compost pile, fence it in, cover it with wire and avoid adding meat scraps, bones, and fish waste to the pile.
How to use compost
- Apply a 4 to 6-inch layer of compost-mulch around woody perennials in the Autumn to reduce damage from winter winds.
- After the soil has warmed up in the spring, apply compost around warm season vegetable crops such as zucchini and tomatoes.
- Spread compost on the garden a couple weeks before spring tilling.
- Add compost to container gardens, hanging baskets
- During the growing season, side-dress your plants with compost to provide a slow-release source of nutrients.
- Make compost tea. Add a shovelful of compost to a 5-gallon bucket of water and allowing it to steep for a few days. For larger quantities, add compost to a 55-gallon drum. Use the nutrient-rich tea to fertilize lawns, shrubs, perennials, containers, hanging baskets, as well as annual vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Dilute the tea for younger plants.
Adding compost tea to raised beds.
- Apply a 1 to 2-inch thick mulch around flowers, trees and shrubs in the spring to maintain soil moisture and discourage weed growth.
- Use compost as a growing medium for seedlings and potted plants. After screening out large particles, you'll need to pasteurize it before using it.
Adapted version of an article written by Marion Owen www.plantea.com