"The foliage has been losing its freshness
through the month of August,
and here and there a yellow leaf shows itself
like the first gray hair amidst the locks of a beauty
who has seen one season too many."
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
Compost is one of the most important tools in my garden. From bins and barrels, to heaps and bags, compost piles come in a wide variety of configurations and sizes. Composting is a great way to utilize your kitchen trimmings, garden and yard waste to improve your garden, your family's health, and the environment.
The Wonders of Compost
For those of you new to the wonderful world of composting, compost looks like dirt and is what is left over when organic matter decomposes. Basic composting incorporates just four ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and water, with the right conditions (oxygen added by simply turning it over each month, and water from occasional rain) to create a nutrient-rich soil additive that:
produces, strong, healthy plants,
amends soil with beneficial natural organisms
provides needed nutrients,
lightens heavy soil for better drainage,
retains moisture in sandy soils,
keeps soil loose enough for tender roots to seek out nutrients.
Gardeners who compost include laissez-fair gardeners (like me) who just keep adding to their pile hoping for some black gold some day, to those impressive individuals who can produce wheel barrows full of compost each year, and who can even recite the ideal percentage of nitrogen vs. carbon (aka C:N ratio, approximately 30:1 – I just had to look it up). The waste we add to our compost piles will decompose on its own, but in a well-managed compost pile, it will happen much faster.
Like every gardener with a compost heap (and every cook with a conscience), I regularly add kitchen scraps, garden and yard waste to our compost pile. This is a “cool compost” pile which will eventually break down, but needs to be turned occasionally to aid decomposition. Our compost pile actually got turned once this year when my dear hubby moved it from the side of the garage to behind the garage. Although the waste in my pile had broken down some, most of it could still be identified...yuck.
Through a little research, I've learned that the contents of my under-performing cool compost pile can be incorporated into a “hot” or “super” compost pile. September is the best time to start a “super compost” compost pile so it can heat up before the cold weather arrives, cook all winter and produce black gold in time for spring gardening
Making a Super or Hot (or Super Hot) Compost Pile
The key to getting your pile hot enough to sustain enough heat through the winter is to make it big enough. The larger the pile, the more heat it will generate as it breaks down. Plan to make it at least 3 feet by 3 feet. When it gets cooking, a hot pile will kill weed seeds and diseases because it reaches higher temperatures (about 160°).
Ideally, a hot compost pile should be located out of drying winter winds. Locate your pile on high ground to avoid stepping in slop when you tend it.
Hot Compost Ingredients:
My original compost pile of kitchen scraps, spoiled fruit and veggies, peels, eggshells and coffee grounds, too. (no salt, meats, fats, etc.).
A pile of green stuff (nitrogen): spent annuals, overgrown greens, weeds, grass trimmings, everything that has bolted or is past its prime, fresh grass clippings, basically, anything once vegetation that still contains its moisture. Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer can also be used as a nitrogen substitute @ 1 cup per square yard of carbon materials.
NOTE: AVOID meat scraps, fatty or salted foods, excessive wood ash, sawdust in large quantities. Also, fresh animal manure (from grazing farm animals, not from cats and dogs that are meat eaters) should be allowed to age in the elements, to wash excessive salts and urine from the contents before adding to the compost pile.
Which reminds me of my dear father's organic garden. Many years he would pick up a barrel or two of manure from a nearby farm, but he would constantly read about and try a variety of organic gardening methods. One year, though, his garden grew better than most. In fact, some of his tomato plants were almost as tall as him...but what a stink when he planted it. That year he followed the lessons taught to the Pilgrims and buried fish scraps from a local seafood store under his crops. Yes, it was a jungle...the tomato plants were over 6 feet tall, but, ahhh, the pungent odor when he brought home the fish!
Bin, barrel, pile or heap?
The structure that supports your pile is up to you. If you have the resources, many fine bins can be purchased in a variety of configurations (round, square, barrels that rotate, etc.) and materials (wood, plastic, metal).
Anything that contains your pile is sufficient. You can simply use untreated/unpainted wood, chicken wire, reinforcing wire or wooden pallets (I use three screwed together in a horseshoe shape). A piece of cardboard or weed block underneath will prevent weeds from growing up through your pile, and your precious nutrients from leaching into the ground below.
Make a garden lasagna...
For your hot compost pile, keep the air moving by starting with a layer of course woody material like woody plants (tomato vines, corn stalks, etc.) small sticks and twigs that will eventually rot, but won't pack down.
Top that with a layer, about a foot thick, of brown ingredients (carbon) topped with some soil.
The third layer is kitchen waste or stuff from your cool compost bin if you have it. But never meat, salt or fats. The ideal percentage of carbons to greens is approximately 30 to 1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.
Lightly moisten the layers to speed up the decay. The pile shouldn't be dripping wet, more like a damp towel. I have also read that adding a little beer supplies yeast that will keep the bacteria in your compost pile very happy.
Water Saving Tip: To conserve water, keep a pitcher near your kitchen sink to collect running water while you are waiting for hot water from the tap. Add some of that water to your compost bucket and use the rest to water your plants. Before bringing my pail of kitchen waste to the garden, I usually pour in enough water so that when I twist the pail, the veggie scraps and coffee grounds are loose and not stuck to the sides. I started doing this so I didn't have to scrape yucky stuff out of the pail, and realized that it's a great way to gradually add water to your compost.
The next layer can be up to 18-inches, of green stuff including.
Repeat layers until either your bin is full or you run out of materials.
Top your pile with a really thick layer of loose straw or fall leaves.
Cover your pile with an opaque tarp, plastic, layers of cardboard or hay bales, since microbes stay active in a warm, moist environment. The cover will minimize drying from winter winds, protect it from too much rain, increase the temperature to kill weed seed and pathogens, and generally speed up the decay process. This winter don't shovel off the snow since it will further insulate your compost pile.
Maintenance: Bring on the heat...if you're into gadgets, a compost thermometer is even available to monitor the baking process. Ideally, you should turn the pile after the temperature has peaked and has begun to cool down. Otherwise, no maintenance is needed for your hot compost pile this winter. I'm more the “set it and forget it” gardener, so I'll just start another pile to dump in my kitchen compost pail.
Is it done yet?
This spring, you'll know your compost is ready to put in your garden when it resembles dark soil and smells like earth. Just mix some into your soil for strong, healthy plants.
TIP: Before adding compost to indoor plants, first sterilize a thin layer of it on a foil covered baking sheet at 200 degrees for about thirty minutes.
With a little preparation now, you can start a super compost pile now that will have time to heat up enough to keep it brewing through the winter using “ingredients” right in your yard. Whether you compost using a bin, barrel, a humble heap; whether it's large or small, you will get the added benefit of knowing that you’re not just adding your yard waste to the growing mass at the Central Landfill. You are actually improving your garden, your family's health, and the environment while creating organically-rich soil.
Whether you make your own, buy it by the bag, or have a truck load dumped in your driveway, adding compost is a great way to give your plants a boost of rich nutrients and improve your soil
There are many ways to create black gold...this is just one method. Share with us how you compost.
"By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather
And autumn's best of cheer."
- Helen Hunt Jackson, September, 1830-1885