Cold or Slow Composting
With cold or slow composting, you can just pile grass clippings and dry leaves on the ground or in a bin. This method requires no maintenance, but it will take several months to a year or more for the pile to decompose. Cold composting works well if you are short on time needed to tend the compost pile at least every other day, have little yard waste, and are not in a hurry to use the compost. Keep weeds and diseased plants out of the mix since the temperatures reached with cold composting may not be high enough to kill the weed seeds or disease-causing organisms. Add yard waste as it accumulates. Shredding or chopping speeds up the process. To easily shred material, run your lawn mower over small piles of weeds and trimmings. Cold composting has been shown to be better at suppressing soil-borne diseases than hot composting. Cold composting also leaves more undecomposed bits of material, which can be screened out if desired.
Hot composting requires more work, but with a few minutes a day and the right ingredients you can have finished compost in a few weeks depending on weather conditions. The composting season coincides with the growing season. When conditions are favorable for plant growth, those same conditions work well for biological activity in the compost pile. However, since compost generates heat, the process may continue later into the fall or winter.
Hot piles do best when high-carbon material and high-nitrogen material are mixed in a 1 to 1 ratio. A pile with the minimum dimensions of 3' x 3' x 3' is needed for efficient heating. For best heating, make a heap that is 4 or 5 feet in each dimension. As decomposition occurs, the pile will shrink. If you don't have this amount at one time, simply stockpile your materials until a sufficient quantity is available for proper mixing.
Hot piles reach 110 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, killing most weed seeds and plant diseases. Studies have shown that compost produced at these temperatures has less ability to suppress diseases in the soil since these temperatures may kill some of the beneficial bacteria necessary to suppress disease.
1. Choose a level, well-drained site, preferably near your garden.
2. There are numerous styles of compost bins available depending on your needs. These may be as simple as a movable bin formed by wire mesh or a more substantial structure consisting of several compartments. There are many commercially available bins. While a bin will help contain the pile, it is not absolutely necessary. You can build your pile directly on the ground. To help with aeration, you may want to place some woody material on the ground where you will build your pile.
3. To build your pile, either use alternating layers of high-carbon and high-nitrogen material or mix the two together and then heap into a pile. If you alternate layers, make each layer 2 to 4 inches thick. Some composters find that mixing the two together is more effective than layering. Use approximately equal amounts of each. If you are low on high-nitrogen material, you can add a small amount of commercial fertilizer containing nitrogen. Apply at a rate 1/2 cup of fertilizer for each 10-inch layer of material. Adding a few shovels of soil will also help get the pile off to a good start; soil adds commonly found decomposing organisms.
4. Water periodically. The pile should be moist but not saturated. If conditions are too wet, anaerobic microorganisms (those that can live without oxygen) will continue the process. These are not as effective or as desirable as the aerobic organisms. Bad odors also are more likely if the pile is saturated.
5. Punch holes in the sides of the pile for aeration.
6. The pile will heat up and then begin to cool. Start turning when the pile's internal temperature peaks at about 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. You can track this with a compost thermometer, or reach into the pile to determine if it is uncomfortably hot to the touch.
7. During the composting season, check your bin regularly to assure optimum moisture and aeration are present in the material being composted.
8. Move materials from the center to the outside and vice versa. Turn every day or two and you should get compost in less than 4 weeks. Turning every other week will make compost in 1 to 3 months. Finished compost will smell sweet and be cool and crumbly to the touch.
The Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio
The Importance of a carbon:Nitrogen balance cannot be underestimated. A well balanced compost holds an optimum nutritional level for microbial growth. An imbalance slows and impedes this growth. It is the compost formula that enables the grower to achieve the correct C:N balance. Approximate Values are 30:1 at make-up; 20:1 at filling; and 17:1 when ready.
1. Over supplementation with nitrogen results in a prolonged ammonia release.
2. Over supplementation with carbohydrates results in residual carbon compounds.
Prolonged ammonia release from an over-supplemented compost necessitates longer composting times. If composting continues too long, the physical structure and nutritional qualities are negatively effected. If the ammonia persists, the compost becomes unsuitable for growth.
Readily available carbohydrates which are not consumed by the microbes can become food for competitors. It is therefore important that these compounds are no longer present when composting is finished.
Water And Air
Water is the most important component in the composting process. To a Large degree water governs the level of microbial activity. In turn, this activity determines the amount of heat generated within the compost pile because the microorganisms can only take up nutrients in solution. Not only do the microorganisms need water to thrive, but they also need oxygen. Years of practice and research have established a basic relationship between the amount of water added and the aeration of the compost. An inverse relationship exists between the amount of water and the amount of oxygen in a compost pile.
1. Too much water = too little air
Moisture content 75% or above
2. Too little water = too much air
Moisture content 67% or below
Over wetting a compost causes the air spaces to fill with water. Oxygen is unable to penetrate causing an anaerobic condition. In contrast, insufficient water results in a compost that is too airy. Beneficial high temperatures are never reached because the heat generated is quickly convected away.
Compost microorganisms can be divided into two classes according to their oxygen requirements. Those needing oxygen to live and grow are called Aerobes. Each class has well defined characteristics.
1. Aerobes decompose organic matter rapidly and completely with a corresponding production of CO2, water and heat. This heat generation is called thermogenesis.
2. Anaerobes partially decompose organic matter, producing not only CO2
and water, but also certain organic acids and several types of gasses such as hydrogen sulfide and methane. Anaerobes generate less heat than aerobes.
Examination of anaerobic areas of the compost reveals a yellowish, under-composted material that smells like rotten eggs. These areas in a compost pile are noticeably cooler and generally waterlogged.
Composting is not an exact science. Experience will tell you what works best for you. If you notice that nothing is happening, you may need to add more nitrogen, water, or air. If things are too hot, you probably have too much nitrogen. Add some more carbon materials to reduce the heating. A bad smell also may indicate too much nitrogen.
Cold composting often proceeds faster in warmer climates than in cooler areas. Cold piles may take a year or more to decompose depending on the materials in the pile and the conditions.
Adding kitchen wastes to compost may attract flies and insects. To prevent this problem, make a hole in the center of your pile and bury the waste. Do not compost meat scraps, dead animals, pet manure, diseased plant material, or noxious weeds.
Check on any local or state regulations for composting in urban areas--some communities may require rodent-proof bins.
Worms - On A Larger Scale
The addition of worms is not required to compost but is an efficient way to end up with a product even richer in humus than conventional composting methods. Red wigglers (also called brandling or manure worms) are popular, but you can also use Lumbricus rubellus, or red earthworms. Another worm commonly used is the European Night Crawler. Worms such as these breed regularly and have enormous appetites.
Note that earthworms typically found in soil are not appropriate for worm composting, and will likely die due to the heat of a compost pile.
If you have a friend with a worm composting bin, you may be able to take their extra worms off their hands. Or, you could visit a local farmer and dig through their manure pile. Worms there are acclimated to the intense heat of a compost pile & are most likely to be of the breed for your needs.
Vermicomposting - Worms on small scale
Vermicomposting uses worms to compost. This takes up very little space and can be done year-round in a basement or garage. It is an excellent way to dispose of kitchen wastes. Like regular compost, vermicompost builds healthy soil by adding organic matter, nutrients, and a diverse set of beneficial microorganisms. Worm compost offers two additional benefits. It improves soil structure as worms eat their way through organic matter leaving behind a polysaccharide slime that acts on soil aggregates, the basic building blocks of a healthy soil. They also leave worm castings (worm poop) that act like homes for microbes. Quality vermicompost is mostly, if not all, worm castings.
1. You need a plastic storage bin. One 1' x 2' x 3.5' will be enough to meet the needs of a family of 6.
2. Drill 8 to 10 holes, approximately 1/4" in diameter, in the bottom of the bin for drainage.
3. Line the bottom of the bin with fine nylon mesh to keep the worms from escaping.
4. Put a tray underneath to catch the drainage.
5. Shredded newspaper works well as bedding. Rip into pieces and water well so that it is thoroughly moist. Place on one side of your bin. Do not let it dry out.
6. Add worms to your bin. Redworms are recommended for best composting, but other species can be used. Redworms are the common small worms found in most gardens and lawns. You can collect them from under a pile of mulch or order them from a garden catalog.
7. Provide worms with food wastes such as vegetable peelings. Do not add fat or meat products. Limit feed -- too much at once may cause the material to rot.
8. Keep the bin in a dark location away from extreme temperatures.
9. In about 3 months the worms should have changed the bedding and food wastes into compost. At this time add fresh bedding and more food to the other side of the bin. The worms should migrate to the new food supply.
10. After a couple of weeks, open your bin in a bright light. The worms will burrow into the bedding. Scoop out the finished compost and apply to your plants or save for use in the spring.
How Worms Do What They Do
". . .they literally serve as colloid mills to produce the intimate chemical and mechanical mixture of fine organic and inorganic matter that forms their castings. In the mixing which takes place in the alimentary canal of the earthworm, the ingested materials undergo chemical changes, deodorization and neutralization, so that the resultant castings are practically neutral humus, rich in water-soluble plant food, immediately available for plant nutrition." Dr. Thomas J. Barrett writing in "Harnessing the Earthworm."
Building The Compost Heap
Now that we have discussed the materials that can & can't go into a compost, lets talk about how to put it together.
There is no one "right" way to compost, but you may want to follow one of the approaches below:
Backyard Composting Approach #1
1. Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin.
2. Add your brown and green materials as you collect them, making sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
3. Moisten dry materials as they are added.
4. Once your compost pile is established, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material.
5. Optional: Cover top of compost with a tarp to keep it moist.
6. When the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use (this is usually occurs in two months to two years).
Backyard Composting Approach #2
1. Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin.
2. Before you add your brown and green materials, make sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
3. Cover your composting area with a 6-inch layer of brown materials. this will keep the compost slightly off the ground for airiness.
4. Add a 3-inch layer of green materials and a little soil or finished compost.
5. Lightly mix the two layers above.
6. Top with a 3-inch layer of brown materials, adding water until moist. (steps 4-6 can be repeated if you have more materials than just a few layers)
7. Turn your compost pile every week or two with a pitchfork to distribute air and moisture. Move the dry materials from the edges into the middle of the pile. Continue this practice until the pile does not re-heat much after turning.
8. Your compost will be ready in one to four months, but let the pile sit for two weeks before using.
Airiness is very important in the composing process. If your materials are dry, sprinkle each layer with water as you build. The heap should be very moist but not sopping wet. You can always continue to build as long as no layer exceeds 3 inches. You can also use natural fertilizers like bone, blood, & fish meal throughout the heap. When the materials have run out, water the heap for a minute & Cover the top with a layer of straw for insulation. within 2 days the pile should be hot in the middle. If not, add more manure or grass clippings.
Rapid decay releases heat that kills seeds & toxic organisms, & the temperature can go higher than 155 degrees Fahrenheit. The pile will begin to sink to half its original size. Stick a pitch fork in it from time to time and churn & fluffy it up a bit, the extra air speeds the process. Sprinkle it with water whenever it begins to get dry but protect it from heavy rains with plastic. when the pile is cool & has turned brown and crumbly, the compost is ready for use.
Phase II Composting - Advanced Stuff
while phase 1 (everything that has gone on so far) is a combination of a biological and chemical processes, Phase 2 is purely biological. in fact, phase 2 can be considered a process of microbial husbandry. By Binging the compost indoors into specially designed rooms, the environmental factors of temperature, humidity, and fresh air can be controlled to such a degree that conditions for growth of a select microbial groups can be maximized. These thermophilic and thermotolerant groups ad their te3mperature rages are
100-170 degrees Fahrenheit. Different species of bacteria are active throughout this range so an optimum can not be given. At temperatures above 130 F bacteria dominate and are responsible for the ammonification that occurs at these tempe3ratures. the most common bacteria found by researchers are Pseudomonas species.
115-140F with an optimum temperature range of 125-132. the most common species are fond in genera streptomyces and thermomonospora. Work done by Stanek (1971) has shown that actinomycetes and bacteria are mutually stimulatory, resulting in greater efficiency when working together. The actinomycetes are the stuff ya wanna grow.
110-130F with an optimum temperature of 118-122F common genera arehumicola and torula. Recent research indicates that these fungi are the most efficient de-ammonifiers, which has led to a more general use of their temperature range for Phase 2 conditioning.
The basic function of these microorganisms is to utilize and thereby exhaust the readily available carbohydrates and the free ammonia. Ammonia in particular must be completely removed because of it's inhibitory effect on the growth.
So what you are looking for is Actinomycetes
aka fire fang in compost. It is mainly just little white fleck not to be confused with cobweb mold. Cobweb is some nasty shit that causes rotting & steals nutrients, so keep your eyes peeled.
The white flecks in compost is known as "fire fang"
This group of bacteria species work to break down organic matter under "hot" conditions of 104ºF up to 170ºF.This type of bacteria can perform the greatest decomposition in the shortest amount of time.
Is a rapid bio-digestion process, usually undertaken in vessels, where the ideal conditions for the rapid growth and colonization of thermophilic bacteria are created and maintained. This facilitates the rapid destruction and breakdown of organic materials introduced into the system, giving off heat as part of the biological reaction. This natural heat further encourages the rapid growth of more thermophilic bacteria, until all of the original organic material is broken down, stabilized and homogenized into a nutrient rich liquid. Due to the elevated temperatures achieved in this process (70ºc+), all pathogens are killed during the digestion process.
The compost has to provide the roots with a smorgasbord of food. Not only is ligninhumus complex and cellulose important, but protein, fat, and oils are also important. The dead cells of thermophilic fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes "firefang" are the packages that deliver protein and fat to plant roots.
What selectively cultured firefang looks like.
Once dry & reduced to a powder.
Actinomycetes culture plate
BEWARE THE Cobweb Mold!!!
Cobweb mold or Dactylium Mildew (Hypomyces sp.)
A cottony mycelium grows over casing. When it contacts a mushroom, the mycelium soon envelopes the mushroom with a soft mildewy mycelium and causes a soft rot. It is also a parasite of wild mushrooms.
Cobweb mold is darker than mycelium... almost grey as compared to white. The difference in color is sometimes hard to tell for somebody that hasn't seen them side by side before. Cobweb has several other indicators... the one that sticks out is the speed of growth. A small patch the size of a dime will spread to cover an entire jar/casing in just a day or two. Cobweb is also very very fine strands, while mycelium tends to be thicker ropes.
Cobweb mold is favored by high humidity. Control strategies include lowering humidity and /or increasing air circulation.
The air and compost temps are held at 135-140f for 2-6 hours. The purpose of pasteurization is to kill or neutralize all harmful organisms in the compost, compost container and the room. These are mainly nematodes, eggs and larvae of flies, mites, harmful fungi and their spores. The length of time needed generally depends o the depth of fill. Deeper compost layers require more time than shallow ones. In general, two hours at 140F is sufficient. Compost temperatures above 140F must be avoided because the inactivate fungi and actinomycetes while at the same time stimulating the ammonifying bacteria. If temps do go above 140F, be sure there is a generous supply of fresh air.
The Compost temp is held at 118-130F. Once the pasteurization is completed, the compost temp should be lowered gradually over 24 hours to the temperature zone favored by actinomycets ad fungi. The exact temp varies according to the depth of fill. At depths up to 8 inches, 122F as measured in the center of the compost is most frequently used. At depths up to 8 inches, temperature of 128F advantageous. A common procedure is to bring the compost temperature down in steps, dropping the core temp 2 degrees per day, from 130 to 122F. This temperature is held until all traces of ammonia are gone.