Down and Dirty: Composting in a Few Easy Steps

Down and Dirty: Composting in a Few Easy Steps

If you are into farming or even just tending a small garden at home, composting is an extremely useful practice. Without it, there is no way to turn organic waste into something valuable and pragmatic.

Composting is a waste management practice that allows microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to break down organic material into simpler forms. Through this process, harmful organisms are destroyed, while a useful and potentially marketable product is created. This alchemy can be done with all sorts of things from manure to yard waste to dead leaves to food scraps.

Carbon inside the organic waste provides the energy that microorganisms need to complete this process – a natural condition that also functions as a solution. The heat generated by the breakdown kills unwanted materials such as pathogens and seeds, making composting a highly effective soil amendment.


This is great news for gardeners and farmers who are looking to turn unwanted organic matter into something functional. Adding composted material to soil makes it richer. It also improves the overall soil composition and boosts its nutrient levels for years to come.

Composting Must Be Done Correctly to Be Successful

One of the biggest challenges to composting is finding the right environment to create organic magic. While the basic formula for composting is pretty straightforward, there are a few important things to remember. For example, a suitable environment must be created so microorganisms can break down in the right way.

In an ideal compost pile, the amount of carbon-rich material must be greater than that of nitrogen-rich material. If there is too much carbon-heavy material or the pieces are too large, the material will break down too slowly. On the other hand, if the nitrogen is too dominant, the compost can overheat and kill the necessary organisms. Finding the perfect balance between these components, heat, and material is the key to success.

Don’t Just Pile It On

compostingFirst, properly situating the compost “pile” is an important part of the process. In small areas or for those looking to compost at home, this can easily be achieved in a plastic bucket. But for larger places like farms, heavy equipment must be used to create rows of waste so they can be intentionally combined at a later time.

Additionally, understanding which materials carry which effect is essential to the process. Some carbon-rich materials include things like dry leaves; woody plant trimmings like fronds, shrubs, and stems; all kinds of shredded paper; straw from dried stalks; pine needles; and sawdust. Because these things contribute carbon to the pile, they will need to make up the majority of the overall material.

On the other hand, nitrogen-rich materials will also need to be present. These include things like grass clippings; kitchen scraps; condiments or sauces; corn cobs or eggshells; fruit rinds and cores; nut shells; cut flowers, shellfish remains, feathers and hair, tea bags or coffee grounds; and raw or cooked vegetables. If the compost begins to smell strongly of ammonia or is not breaking down quickly enough, the balance may need tweaking.

Find the Right Temperature

This is a pivotal part of successful composting because the working microorganisms need a warm, damp, and well-aerated environment. As a result, the pile will need to be large enough to create a heated center that can be mixed and turned periodically. Usually, three square feet is considered the minimum amount of compostable material.

The mixing process will depend greatly on the size of the compost pile. Small containers can be shaken, while bigger piles will need to be turned manually or by machine. To keep the conditions right, compost piles must be turned regularly and lightly watered so the material is crumbly with about 40 percent moisture present.

Experts say the final temperature of a working compost pile should not exceed 160 degrees, as excessive heat may kill the beneficial organisms. When the center reaches that temperature (which can be conveniently measured with a special thermometer), it’s time to turn the material. When heat is no longer generated after turning the pile, the process is done and final product is ready to be used.

What Not to Throw in the Pile

Even though the temperature and balance may be perfect, there are still a few composting errors that can prevent a useful final product. For example, there are many hazardous materials that are not suitable for composting, even in small amounts. Throwing in the wrong things can ruin a perfectly good pile of compost, so it’s important to identify these elements before getting started.

Any grass clippings should be completely, 100-percent organic and free of chemical treatments, and all plants free of blights and fungus. Any diseases living on rotting plants will not be killed off in the process and can affect the final product. If shavings are used, they must be the product of natural wood that has never been pressure treated, as heavy metals can be introduced with pressure-treated wood. Any inorganic material like plastic, metal, or rubber should never be composted.

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