Whether composting at home for your garden or collecting food scraps and yard debris for municipal pick up, a basic knowledge of composting essentials is indispensable.
The art of composting is more than just collecting kitchen scraps, leaves, and yard trimmings and heaping them into a pile; proper ratios of materials and composting conditions increase compost quality and reduce odors.
Key considerations for good compost are:
- Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio (C:N) of Materials
- Moisture Level
- Oxygen Level
- pH (Acidity or Alkalinity)
- Material Particle Size
- Composting/Curing Time
While an industrial compost operation will utilize instruments to measure many of the above physical properties, most of us must rely on published data and approximate. Think of it like “doctoring up” a recipe; a little more of this or that will help us to create a good compost.
The compost makers goal is to supply the proper nutrients and growth conditions needed by aerobic (oxygen needing) microbes to decompose the gathered materials and to create compost. When working correctly, this degradation process releases carbon dioxide, water, and heat. When conditions are out of whack, odiferous by-products like ammonia and sulfur result. A major key to driving the process in the proper direction is to optimize the ratio of Carbon: Nitrogen (C: N). When all materials are mixed together this ratio should be from 25:1 up to 30:1. Materials such as newsprint, cardboard, coffee grounds, and leaves are sources of carbon. Leafy and starchy vegetable scraps, fresh grass trimmings, and fruit scraps, are sources of nitrogen.
Moisture level of the compost materials is another key component and should range from 50% - 60%. Moisture facilitates microbial action and materials breakdown. However, too much moisture will create a low oxygen environment by replacing oxygen trapped between the compost materials with water.
If there isn’t enough oxygen in the compost pile, anaerobic (non-oxygen needing) microbes will begin to thrive and bad odors will be emitted. To ensure adequate aeration, large materials should be shredded or cut into irregularly shaped pieces no longer than 2 inches; irregular shaped materials help to create air spaces within the compost pile keeping a healthy environment for aerobic organisms. To make sure the compost pile remains aerated, materials are normally mixed or turned every two weeks. Proper materials mix, moisture level, and aeration work best to ensure an optimum pH range (a measure of alkalinity and acidity) of 5.5 to 8.0. If the compost pile is oxygen starved, anaerobic bacteria will take over and the pH of the pile will become too acidic (under pH 5.5).
At this point, you may be thinking that making good compost requires too many variables. How can you possibly control all of them? You can take the guess work out of creating good compost by using Recyclingbin.com’s Compost Calculator
This easy to use calculator lets you know if the materials for your compost pile are optimized for the Carbon: Nitrogen ratio and moisture level. Simply enter in the lbs. of the common compost materials you have on hand and the calculator will tell you if you are optimized or not.
With the proper materials mix, moisture level, pH range, and oxygen level, your compost pile will support the growth of aerobic organisms to decompose the materials releasing carbon dioxide, water, and heat. As the materials decompose, the compost pile heats up. The pile should cure until the temperature reaches 40 – 55 ° C (104- 131° F). Reaching the upper end of this temperature range ensures most fly larvae and weed seeds are destroyed. The curing time for your compost will depend upon such factors as outside temperature and oxygen level. If you start composting in the middle of the winter, it will take the compost pile longer to heat up than if you start composting in the summer. Under moderate temperature conditions and good management, your compost should be ready to use in a couple of months.
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