Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Home Composting: Maintaining Your Pile

So you've got a compost pile, eh? Once you've followed our tips to get your compost pile up and running, how do you keep it working for you (i.e. producing amazing compost for your garden and significantly cutting your household waste production)? Here are a few tips on proper care of a compost pile (and what we do as well! :P)

#4. Does it matter which compostable items I put in my pile or what order I throw them in?
If you follow Rule #3 in Home Composting: How to Get Started about what items are able to be composted you can pretty much dump any and/or all of the eligible items in the pile in any order that you would like. Just make sure you keep your balance of "green" items in the composter (grass clippings, veggies, fruit) high enough as compared to the "brown" items (leaves, paper, cotton scraps) that the decomposition in the compost heap generates enough heat to keep the pile at about 150F. Heat speeds decomposition and if your "brown" levels get too high, decomposition can stall to a snail's pace without additional "green" items and/or oxygen from turning the pile. If your compost hasn't begun to generate heat within 24 hours, add more green items until you can feel heat coming from the pile when you hold your hand close to the decomposing matter.

#5. When will I have usable compost for my garden?
By the book, the more you turn your compost pile, the quicker you will have compost. If you are out there daily with a pitchfork or a shovel and fully mixing up the pile (digging all the way day and pulling items up, mixing the new items on top into the middle and the bottom) avid gardeners tell me you can have usable compost in as little as 3-4 weeks! Keep in mind, outdoor weather plays a role as well so during the winter your compost pile will decompose more slowly than the summertime and (in areas of extreme cold) may go dormant completely until everything thaws out in the spring. Here in the deep South, however, a year-round compost pile is very doable. But, as you see in my discussion in #6, even if you are a lazy gardener like me and do not turn your pile you should have usable compost in 4-6 mths. My compost pile sat with zero help from December-May one year while I was out of the country and when I returned in June to plant, everything had been fully composted while I was gone (including all of my Christmas quilt fabric scraps!) with the exception of a few corn cobs (notoriously slow to decompose) and a few stumps that my husband had thrown in, somehow convinced that 6in chunks of wood would vanish in the pile overnight... what can I say, he's an optimist!
#6. How much work is a compost pile?
As discussed above, turning your pile really speeds decomposition and compost production. Here is where I admit to being a bad compost mom. Truly, I put zero effort into that little pile and I just harvest its yummy little contents every spring when I go to add fresh soil and till my garden before the spring planting. I never turn my pile... seriously, never. I tried the first year; it was June when I started so it was hot out and the mosquitoes were wicked out by the shed and I just thought, "Oh well... that's not going to happen" and it didn't. The good news is that, even if you can't afford one of these nifty compost barrels that you can just crank and flip to turn your pile, turning your compost is not necessary to it's survival. If you leave it long enough while it is producing heat, everything will compost and you can always help it along with a compost activator (we use CompostAlive!) after you add a big chunk of brown or green matter (i.e. after a whole yard full of fall leaves or a mid-summer's cut of you and your neighbor's lawn). You just dump a few scoops of activator on top of the pile and then soak with a garden house until water comes pouring out the bottom (a minute or two) and let it work its magic!

Having issues with your compost? Check in tomorrow for some troubleshooting tips to solve several common compost problems. Enjoy!

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