Compost, The Basics

If you are going to grow organically, you need to know about the most basic way you will feed your plants. It is perhaps the most important factor in organic gardening and if you do it correctly, you can almost forgo any other feeding.

We are talking about composting of course. If you feel you don’t have the room for a compost, you at least need to know what goes into proper compost so that you can make informed decisions about purchasing a bag of the commercial stuff.

Any kind of composting is probably beneficial. But a good compost is fantastic. The idea is to cultivate the bacteria, fungus and other critters that will, in turn, feed your plants.

To start a compost, you need to first scope out a good spot. If you will be composting in the warm season you should probably pick a shady spot, I will explain later why. Fence off the area with chicken wire to keep your pets out of the compost pile. This is especially important if you have dogs, because what do dogs love more than a pile of rotting garbage and poop? Give yourself lots of room, you should probably have enough room for two piles. You don’t need any sort of bin. These are products people try to sell, but really have no purpose in my opinion.

Collecting your ingredients is the next stage. There are four important parts of a good compost.

Green waste

1. Green waste: this is your kitchen scraps, weeds, garden refuse, coffee grounds, etc. This is the food for bacteria and other critters. No dairy or meat though egg  shells are awesome.

Sawdust

2. Wood or paper: This can be a little tough but not impossible in Tucson. Nitrogen fixing trees are not ideal and this is what we tend to have a lot of in Tucson. However, if you know a carpenter, they often have wood chips and sawdust that is GREAT for compost. Also, paper is good. Newspaper now prints with soy ink and this is fine for the garden. The idea here is to create food for fungus. Fungus is important for your garden.

Chicken Manure, with a bit of hay. The hot temperatures in the compost will cook the weed seeds so don't worry.

3. Manure: you have to have good fresh poop for a good compost. Steer manure from the garden center is ok, but not really ideal. It is mostly already composted (this is awesome for putting directly into garden soil). Find a friend who raises chickens (or raise some chickens yourself). Horse manure is often plentiful. Find a local source for poop and try to find someone close to your house. Get a large garbage can and have them fill it up. Most of the time, they are more than willing to give you their poop. Manure is basically the inoculating factor. It is the source of much bacteria.

4. Water: have a water source ready and convenient.

Next you will mix the manure, wood pulp or paper and green waste in approximately thirds. That is, one third manure, one third green waste, and one third woody/papery material. Mix them up really well, and water the pile down good. Eventually you are aiming at a pile that is not soaking wet, but wet enough to form a ball in your hands. Watch that the center of the pile is not too wet. It will omit oxygen and go anaerobic and literally smell like shit (not the good kind).

The first few days you will wait. With chicken poop the pile will probably start heating up right away. Depending on how old your manure is, your pile make take longer. If you have a long stemmed thermometer, keep it in the pile and if the temperature gets over 170 degrees break the pile up. My pile literally smokes sometimes.

Since I use mostly chicken poop, I need to break my pile up a few times at first. I use my nose to tell me if it is right. Nasty rotten poo smells says there is too much anaerobic activity. Usually if you do things right, the pile will smell more like, well, compost–more fresh with fruity overtones. This means the pile is growing more aerobically and that is what you want. Yes, you will learn to love the smell of compost.

You do want the pile to heat up. The heat is the activity of the microorganisms eating, pooping, converting your waste into food for plants. 120-140 is a good temperature  goal. But use your nose. And as I said, watch the deep part of the pile. When you break it up, find the stuff that isn’t converting and get it deep into the inside of the pile.

Finished Compost

Eventually, depending on the quality of your poop, the weather and many other elements too long to list in this short article, your pile will cool off and smell great. You don’t really want BLACK compost. This is usually a sign that there has been a lot of anaerobic activity. You want a dark chocolate color. This is perfection.

Ask any questions below about ingredients or other problems or questions you may have and expect more detailed posts later. Composting is a science, but even if you don’t do it exactly right, you will still be doing your garden a service.

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5 thoughts on “Compost, The Basics

  1. What do you think about composting bins that turn and rotate the mass? Are they really necessary? Can you do compost with out the wood/paper?

    • I really think compost bins really don’t do much help. If you can handle a shovel, you can turn a compost better than a bin. The bins don’t thoroughly mix stuff, the middle often stays in the middle, and in general I have seen people purchase these things, and then they just sit in the yard as junk because they really aren’t practical.

      The wood and paper is for beneficial fungus which is an important part of the organic gardening matrix. You can certainly compost without that, but its better to have it.

  2. Hi Jared. Is hay a substitute for the wood/paper component? Is hay just as good? If so does it matter what kind? Do you have to keep adding these three components over the season? Or can you just add your scraps to your original pile of manure and wood? That’s what I do ( I added chicken manure three months ago) but it never gets hot…
    Thanks, annie

    • Not sure why it would not get hot. Yes, I am always adding stuff to a pile until it gets big, and then move on the next pile. If your pile did not get hot, there might not have been enough poo, or maybe the chicken manure was old. Or, the pile was not moist enough. It should not be muddy, but damp like if you got a rag wet and wrung it out. You should be able to make a ball and it keeps its form. That is probably why the pile didn’t heat up now that I think about it.

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