Most people look at composting as a lot of work; building a bin, constantly collecting, watering and turning the pile. But the truth is that composting is nothing more than speeding-up the natural decomposition process.
The secret to successful compost is building an ecosystem for various organisms to do the work for you, by providing the proper levels of food, water, air and warmth.
Decomposing bacteria, fungi and earthworms have an appetite for carbon and nitrogen in the form of “browns” and “greens”.
Browns are organic high carbon materials in the form of dead leaves and plants, straw , horse bedding and shredded yard trimmings.
Greens are high nitrogen material, such as fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, clover and livestock manure.
Combine these ingredients in a ratio of two parts brown to one part green.
Never add grass clippings treated with herbicides or pesticides, weeds gone to seed or diseased plants to your compost pile. Keep human or pet feces, meat, unwashed egg shells, food cooked in butter, fish or milk products out of the pile. Those items lure pests such as insects, mice and rats.
The proper moisture level is important to successful composting. Test the water level by squeezing a handful of material. It should feel damp like a wrung out sponge. If it’s too wet, turn the pile and add more dry material.
Aerobes are the good decomposing organisms. They need oxygen to function. Their work creates heat ; raising the pile temperature. Higher temperatures kill harmful bacteria and soil-borne disease.
Anaerobes are the bad organisms that function when oxygen is limited. They work by fermentation, creating acids and alcohols that are harmful to plants.
The best composting process occurs at several temperature levels between 55ºF to 155ºF; each using a different kind of bacteria. You can use a specially designed thermometer to test the temperature; or if you are brave, you can feel for warmth near the center of the pile. Remember, an active pile can reach 160 degrees and will feel hot. Most piles never reach the upper temperatures and level off around 110 to 120 degrees. Gauge this “feel” by your hot tap water. Most water heaters are set for about 120 degrees. Remember to wash-up afterwards!