Speed up your compost pile by balancing key ingredients

March 27, 2012
leaves for garden compost in Buffalo NY

Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

In an earlier article, we told you why you should save autumn leaves and we gave you some basic information on composting. In another article, we gave you more details on what to put in your compost pile.

Today we’re going to give you more advanced information on composting. If you’re willing to put in a little bit of work, there are ways to speed up your compost pile.

David Clark, horticulturist, shared tips on composting at a recent seminar at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Clark’s Horticulture I and Horticulture II Certificate classes at the Botanical Gardens are currently full, but a new series will be offered soon. You can email lwieser@buffalogardens.com to get on the waiting list.

Four key materials for a speedy compost pile

To speed up your compost pile, your main objective is to support the beneficial bacteria that break down the plant material. You want the bacteria to have the nutrients and conditions they need so they can  work at a rate that heats up the pile. A warm compost pile will break down more quickly.

To do that, you need to maintain optimal levels of the four key materials of your compost pile.

Carbon

High-carbon materials tend to be brown and dry, such as dried leaves, straw and wood chips.

Nitrogen

High-nitrogen materials tend to be green, such as grass clippings, or colorful, such as fruit and vegetable peels. These materials also tend to be wet.

Oxygen

Decomposition can take place without oxygen, but the aerobic or oxygen-using process is more efficient than the anaerobic, or non-oxygen process. Also, the anaerobic process can be smelly.

Water

Water is needed in the right amounts to keep the composting process moving along.

Mixture of materials

potato image for composting in Buffalo

Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

The most efficient composting occurs with a carbon-to-nitrogen mix of about 30:1.

Using the general guidelines, that means that you should have 30 times more dried leaves (measured by volume) in your compost pile than you have kitchen scraps.

Maintaining your compost pile

If you get your compost pile operating optimally, it will heat up. The optimal temperature is between 135 degrees and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Getting your pile hot not only causes the plant material to break down more quickly, it can also kill weed seeds.

When your compost pile is breaking down optimally, water vapor will be released. You may even see the pile steaming.

“One spring, I had my compost pile smoking like a pasta pot,” Clark said.

Since water will be released from the pile, to keep it working optimally, you will need to add water back in.

Oxygen will also be depleted. The simplest way to add oxygen is to turn the pile with a pitchfork. Clark also suggests having a layer of sticks at the bottom of your pile to create air pockets and allow oxygen to enter.

The hotter the pile gets, the more often you will need to add water and oxygen. The air and water balance is critical to maintaining high temperatures.

However, too much water can slow down the process. If your pile gives off a bad smell, that’s a hint that your pile is too wet.

Other composting tips

  • Locating your pile in the sun can help it warm up.
  • Use rabbit pellets (the food that contains alfalfa) as a starter– that’s green material, Clark said.
  • If you get fresh manure from a farm, it should be composted rather that placed directly on garden beds. Fresh manure is high in ammonia, which can burn plants.
  • You can use newspaper in your compost pile. Most colored inks are now soy based, so they’re safe for composting, he said. Make sure you shred up the paper before you add it to your pile. If you add a full sheet of newsprint, six months from now you’ll still have a full sheet of newsprint.
  • Breaking up your other materials into smaller pieces will also help speed up the composting process. Break up or cut up sticks and woody plant stems. Step on dried leaves or run them over with a lawn mower.

 

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2 Responses to Speed up your compost pile by balancing key ingredients

  1. david clark on March 28, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Thanks for posting, Connie! One change – by rabbit pellets, I meant the green alfalfa ones that you feed ‘the front end’, not the round ones that come out ‘the back end’…

  2. connie on March 28, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Ha! Thanks for the correction. I’ve composted the pellets that come out the back end. I guess I have less experience with the rabbits you have to feed and more experience with the rabbits who help themselves to my garden buffet. The information in the article is now correct.

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