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This is the third and final installment of The Art of Composting series, researched and compiled by Rachel Blackburn. If you missed the previous two, link to and read Part I – Getting Started  and Part II – What to Compost to gain more insight into the composting process. We trust you’ll find them very helpful!

Tips for Successful Composting:

Add the Ideal Balance of Green to Brown Materials

    • It’s important to get the right mixture of components in your compost to ensure that it heats up to a proper temperature and breaks down efficiently. The right mixture of green (nitrogenous) materials to brown (carbon) materials can make a huge difference. Adding too much brown material will result in a pile that takes a long time to break down. Adding too much green material will result in a pile that is slimy, smelly, and doesn’t break down well. A compost pile is full of microorganisms that aid in the decomposition process, and they need both carbon and nitrogen to thrive; carbon for energy, and nitrogen for protein synthesis. Some people recommend an even ratio of green to brown materials, while others recommend 1/3 green to 2/3 brown materials. Play around with the balance until you are happy with the end result. Often, it varies depending on the season.

Shred the Larger Ingredients

    • Remember to shred or break apart the components in your pile. Especially carbon rich ingredients such as leaves, hay, straw, paper and cardboard as they take the longest to break down. Shredding increases the surface area that the microorganisms have to work on and provides a more even distribution of air and moisture among the materials. The bigger the components in your pile, the longer they will take to break down.

Layer the Materials to Get it Started

    • Start with a layer of straw or twigs, and then alternate green and brown layers. Keep the layers relatively thin and uniform. Once the pile is active, you can add materials by burying them in the center or just incorporating them more fully when you turn the pile, but to get started, try to disperse the elements fairly evenly, as in the diagram below.

Compost Layers

Turn or Mix the Pile Frequently

    • Turning your pile frequently will help the compost break down faster. Turning the pile adds fresh oxygen to the environment, which many of the bacteria that break down the compost need to survive. If there is not enough oxygen, the bacteria will start dying and the internal temperature of the pile will start to drop. The core of the pile should be around 110-160 degrees F. Turn the pile about every 14 days, or when you notice the temperature has fallen. When turning the material, use a garden rake or aerator tool and move the drier material from the outer edges of the pile into the center, and break up any clumps to get as much air into the mixture as you can.

Check the Compost Moisture Level

    • It is important to keep the pile slightly moist at all times. To achieve the correct moisture content, the pile must not be too wet and soggy, or too dry. You should not be able to squeeze water out of the pile with your hands, but it should feel damp. If the pile does not crumble in your hands, but keeps its form when you squeeze it, it’s just right. If the pile is too wet try adding some brown carbon materials to the mix, like dry leaves. If the pile is too dry add some more green materials, or use a hose to add some water while turning the pile.

 Add an Activator to Speed up the Process

    • There are a few different compost activators sold, such as the examples below, which are said to help speed up the composting process by adding more nitrogen and protein, which help the microorganisms break down the organic material. They also help to maintain a proper pH balance, and help keep the pile at the ideal temperature by keeping more microorganisms alive.

Alfalfa Meal            Compost Starter

    • You can also use fresh manure (only from herbivores, check Part II for what not to compost), bone meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, comfrey, or high protein dog food as a compost activator.

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for your compost to be ready to use. Once it is ready, use it to enrich your garden, around trees and shrubs to improve the soil content, as an all-over ground cover when planting sod, as a soil additive for house plants and planter boxes, and as protective mulch for trees and shrubs. Have fun with the process, and hopefully the outcome will be worth it!

Finished Compost

Happy composting!

— Rachel Blackburn