Hot Composting Basics
In the natural world, composting happens as leaves and other organic materials pile up on the forest floor and begin to decay. Eventually, the soil reclaims the material, which provides nutrients to the living plants nearby. Backyard composting is simply a method for speeding up the natural process.
The critical ingredients in a compost pile are air, water, browns and greens. Browns are the source of carbon. Browns are dry materials such as dried leaves, wood chips, evergreen leaves, paper and straw. Greens are the source of nitrogen. Greens are moist, fresh materials such as grass clippings, manure, blood or cottonseed meal, coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable scraps.
A Basic Approach to Backyard Hot Composting (Quick Method)
- Find a suitable location for your compost pile. As bugs will assist in the composting process, place the pile at least two feet away from any type of structure. A bin can be used to keep the pile tidy and protect the pile from wind and rain. Either build or buy a bin. A bin can be as simple as a cylinder of chicken wire. There are numerous sources for compost bins on the Internet.
To retain heat and moisture, the pile should be at least 1 cubic yard. The bin should not have an area larger than 5 feet by 5 feet as aerating a pile that large would be too difficult.
- Find carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) to add to your compost pile. The optimal environment for bacterial growth is a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1 by weight. Here are some rules of thumb to help achieve this optimal ratio. If you are composting leaves and grass, gather about 60% leaves and 40% fresh grass. If you have some fresh materials and some dry materials, gather equal amounts of each. If you have both vegetative and animal matter, gather 20% vegetative and 80% animal.
- Add the browns and greens to the pile in alternating layers, adding water as you go. Make sure that the browns and greens are in contact with each other by either having very thin layers (about 4 inches) or by mixing the brown and green layers with a pitchfork or other garden tool as you add them.
- Cover the pile with a tarp, plastic bag, or other impermeable surface to keep in moisture and prevent over-watering from rain.
- In two to four days, check the temperature of your compost pile. Either use a compost thermometer or simply stick your hand into the pile. The pile can reach temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit so please be careful.
If the pile is not hot, add more nitrogen (greens). If the pile smells, add more carbon (browns). Be sure to mix the new additions into the existing pile and add moisture if necessary. The pile should be approximately 45 to 50 percent water or as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
- Monitor the moisture of your pile. There should be enough water that it almost drips from your hand when you squeeze a handful. Add water as necessary.
- Aerate the pile by either rebuilding the pile or turning with a pitchfork. To minimize the amount of time it takes to compost, aerate the pile when the temperature in the pile begins to drop. If you aerate about once a week, the pile should be ready for use in the yard in about one month.
- Compost is ready when the heat of decomposition has dissipated and most of the original ingredients are unrecognizable.
Ways to Use Compost
To maintain a lawn or garden, sprinkle a half-inch layer of sifted compost once each year and water it in.
Mix 3 inches of compost into the top 8 to 10 inches of soil for intensive gardening
Use compost as about one-third of a potting soil mix to add nutrients and to control fungus.