Fall garden clean-up is underway, but before you kick yard waste to the curb, consider composting. Composting breaks down living matter under controlled conditions. When the process is complete, compost can be added to garden soil. Soil amended with composted organic matter holds water and nutrients better. This helps your plants.
Interested? Try hot composting. It’s efficient and safe. Its high temperatures speed up life cycles of compost decomposers, converting compost to soil more quickly. The process also discourages disease-harboring molds.
Hot composting starts with ingredients, things you may otherwise put out for trash day. Gather carbon-rich materials like dry leaves, twigs, wood chips, weed-free hay or straw, and sawdust or shredded paper. Collect nitrogen-rich items like kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, pesticide-free grass clippings and fresh garden waste.
Leave out meat, dairy, oils or other fats and pet or human waste. Cut items down so they are less than two inches in diameter.
Now, build your pile. Find a site in a partly to mostly sunny part of the yard. The site should have good drainage and easy access to water. Compost can be home for garden pests or annoying insects. So, place your compost pile away from garden, patio or picnic areas.
Build your pile by mixing materials in a ratio of two parts carbon-rich to one-part nitrogen-rich. Alternate layers of ingredients with thin layers of soil or finished compost.
Make sure your pile is no smaller than 3 or 4 cubic feet. Microbes produce heat when they help process compost. A good sized compost pile will let that heat reach 120 to 140 degrees F in the center.
Once your compost lasagna is created, give it some water. Compost should be kept spongy with moisture, but not overly wet.
Keep track of the pile’s performance by taking its internal temperature daily with a long-stemmed compost thermometer. Turn the pile after the temperature reaches its peak and starts cooling down, usually once every 5 to 7 days.
Also look for creepy crawlies. Their presence can indicate the health of your pile because if they are there, their microscopic food is there. And that food is breaking down your pile. Hope for things like beetles, ants, spiders and centipedes. You may even see earthworms and sow bugs.
Having microbial and insect compost decomposers is wonderful. But, animals do not belong in the pile. Keep them out and keep ingredients nicely contained with a covered compost bin. There are many options from DIY bins to ones offered by your favorite local garden center. No matter your selection, good air circulation is key.
And, no matter your set up, there is a universal way to tell when compost is finished. It will be dark brown and crumbly with no large chunks of original materials in sight. It should not be hot, moldy or stinky.
Once it’s done, cure compost for about a month before use. Your soil (and your plants) will thank you.