What Makes Good Compost?
What Makes Good Compost?
Compost is the result of a successively staged natural oxidation process that transforms heterogeneous solid organic matter into a homogenous fine particle, called humus.
But how do you know it is good?
There are roughly 7 different elements required to make good compost:-
- Plenty of Organic Matter, for energy for the decomposing organisms
- Nutrients, especially Nitrogen
- Oxygen, (with a few commercial exceptions)
- Water, but not too much nor too little
- Cations, especially Calcium to stabilize the compost
- A suitable pH range
Most of us only follow a few standard rules when composting in our backyard. These are:-
You usually start with a 30 -1 ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen. The Carbon can be from any plant material that is shredded and small enough to increase its surface area for fungi & Bacteria to break it down into Compost.
This does NOT include any branches even though they are all Carbon. They are too large and need to be ground down into a lot smaller pieces by a mulcher in order to compost them quickly and effectively.
Preferably you try to layer 4 inches of carbon to 3 inches of greens.
If you have too much carbon your pile will be dry and slow to break down. Too much nitrogen your pile may well be a big slushy mess.
In time this will sort itself out if you can tolerate the smell.
But if you get this ratio wrong in your veggie garden and have too much carbon the microbes will take nitrogen from the soil making it unavailable for your plants. That is why if you are making compost in a heap you should make sure it is fully decomposed before you place it around your plants.
Composting organisms REQUIRE moisture to be active otherwise they go into a resting stage called spores. But the compost heap cannot be too wet or too dry so the organisms have an ideal environment to survive.
The heap may be too moist if the top is open & rain has saturated the heap.
Or too dry because it is too thin & drying out in the sun. Or you have too much carbon in the mix. There is a fine balance between being too wet or too dry that can take quite a bit of work to maintain. Covering a moist compost heap with a tarp will keep in the moisture, keep excess water out, and make your heap break down quickly without requiring water all the time to keep it moist.
Air containing Oxygen must be mixed throughout the pile by turning the heap every 3 days. When the outer layer of the compost that has cooled down it can be alternated with the inner hot layer. This allows Oxygen to penetrate throughout the heap. Without this constant turning, the heap will take a long time to break down. It will get very hot in the center of the pile preventing quick break down by the microbes as they can only survive at a certain temperature.
Too much air can also dry out the heap dehydrating the contents rather than decomposing them. Dehydrated contents make a mess in your garden if you are just tossing food waste on your garden bed. They need to be reconstituted with water to allow for proper decomposition in order to be converted to good compost.
So don’t let your heap dry out. This can be a tricky balance between being too wet or too dry. One can’t work because it is too dry. The other can’t work because it is too wet and often turns into a big stinky sludgy mess. This then requires carbon to soak up the water and decrease the smell.
So turning your pile regularly and maintaining the moisture at just the right balance will add the necessary oxygen and moisture to keep your compost heap functioning correctly.
It is not a good idea to add weed seeds to your compost heap unless the heat gets hot enough in the pile to destroy the seeds. Nutgrass is a particular problem in the compost heap and can be spread around the garden when you distribute and dig the mature compost into your soil.
I have personally found, rather than removing the nutgrass, I cover them with grass clippings every time I mow the lawn. The nut grass appears to die out as it can’t find the sun to reproduce. This has been an effective control for me as I don’t have time to dig them up and dispose of them whether it be in a bin or in the compost.
Some people put seeds from food waste in their council bins rather than separate it for the compost pile. This is too much work for me. I find it easier just to remove unwanted seedlings like pumpkin vines as soon as they sprout in your garden. Unless of course, you don’t mind if they take over your garden.
This happened to me and the end result – though I did get some lovely pumpkins out of the patch – smothered other plants and virtually killed them. And when I was removing the whole plant I accidentally killed some plants when I cut the vine as they were so entangled together.
But it is a great way to grow things without having to purchase seeds. It is just something you need to be aware of when composting.
But do all these things make good compost?
Well, that all depends on the nutrients available in the compost at the end of the composting process. Unfortunately, you can’t know exactly what nutrients are available without expensive testing and then you have to know what tests to ask for in order to know what is useful in that particular pile of compost.
On top of that, the nutrients shown in the test may not actually be available for the plant to use. They might be tied up chemically and inaccessible to the plant. Then the pH has to be right as well for the plants to access the nutrients. The Ph is probably the most important factor that can be easily tested at home in your garden without the need for expensive soil tests.
For farming purposes, you must test your soil and/or compost to find out what is lacking in your soil in order to grow a particular crop.
But compost is one of the most important things to add to your soil as it stores and releases nutrients easier, holds water better, improves tillage, soil structure, and soil matrix. A must for every gardener.
What should I add to make my compost better?
If you really want to go to all the trouble and expense of trying to produce perfect compost (very difficult) then in addition to the usual compost mix of grass clippings, small mulched branches, shredded leaves, some vegetable waste, and other garden waste, you could add these ingredients:-
Additional Ingredients to make good compost
- Soil with a clay component – to hold nutrients and reduce nutrient loss
- Gypsum – to add sulphur essential to activate the nutrients on soil particles
- Rock Dust – can add up to 5%
- Rock Phosphate – for phosphorous – up to 5%
- Lime – a sprinkle unless the ph is too low.
- Wood Ash – but not too much or it will raise your ph too high
- Worm teas, comfrey teas, nettle teas
- Sawdust, used hay, straw
- Paper, Corn Stalks
- Manures, Blood, and Bone
Basically, anything that is biodegradable as long as you keep that carbon-nitrogen balance, water balance, aeration, and Ph correct.
You can put meat products in your compost as long as you bury them deep enough to prevent rats and other vermin getting at them. But this can be tricky.
I personally find putting a Compot into your compost pile makes disposing of all your kitchen waste, (especially meat products), super easy. This way you can lock up your meat, dairy, eggs, and anything biodegradable inside your Compot inside your heap. This improves the overall nutrient content of your compost. It will bring the worms as well who in turn improve your compost nutrient mix. Or plant a few Compots in your garden if you couldn’t be bothered with a compost heap, which generally speaking is a lot of hard work.
So what makes good compost?
In the end, don’t worry too much about your compost (unless it turns into a big smelly mess). It is still the best way to nourish your plants, dispose of waste, and help the environment even though each particular batch may not be perfect. But it does require large quantities of materials to produce a small amount of compost. Understanding how all the elements in your soil and your compost interact with each other to produce great soil is a complex process that is even more complex to describe.
Basically, it comes down to always mixing as many different materials as you can in your compost heap. This will ensure you have a pretty good chance of producing “good compost” that is nutrient rich to make your plants grow.
What not to put in your Compost heap?
Gum leaves, as well as Pine needles, contain a chemical that stops any other seed from growing under that tree. This means that particular tree can utilize all the available water and nutrients they need to grow and don’t have to share resources with other trees. This is important because these trees are usually found in dry, nutrient-poor areas where there is likely to be competition for any available water and nutrients.
For this reason, Gum leaves & Pine needles should NOT be added to a compost heap.
Of course, there are all the other “usual” suspects that don’t work well in a worm farm or outdoor compost heaps such as Meat, Dairy, Eggs, Oil, Onions and any citrus waste. But you can put all these items in a Compot if you own a Compot.
8 Methods of Composting
8 Methods of Composting is what I consider to be the most commonly used methods of composting for a business or home environment.
If you have read 7 Composting Methods then this article is an update to that article. I added Mechanical Composting as I think this is another very viable method of composting that like all composters have its own advantages and disadvantages.
For a deeper understanding of composting register to receive the monthly newsletter and you will be emailed the white paper by Bob’s James on Composting Principles which discuss the mechanics of composting.
The other information in this article talks about the different methods of composting.
Everybody has different needs so at any given point in time one or more of these methods might suit your current living conditions and you might at some point change the way you compost many times throughout your lifetime.
What you once found useful might become obsolete as your needs and environment change so it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the pros and cons of each system. However, what might be a pro for you may be a con for someone else. You just need to work out what is best for you.
They all work in varying degrees for different purposes, some more efficiently than others and some are just simply, different. You may have tried some of these methods, are happy with your method, are looking for something to compliment your system or are looking for a change.
So I hope this information sheds some light on factors you may not have considered when you last chose your composter or if you are now choosing a new composter.
Traditional backyard composting is typically achieved by:
Open air composting (hot composting)
Direct Composting (in-ground composting)
More Recent methods of composting are:
Tumbler Composting (A form of hot composting)
Worm Farm Composting (Vermicomposting)
EMO Composting (Bacteria composting)
Combination Composting (Compot Composting)
Elements generally required in most systems in order to produce compost.
|Air||Compost needs to be aerated or it creates an anaerobic environment for bacteria which produces unpleasant odours and attracts vermin|
|Water||Essential to keep the compost moist|
|Vegetable Matter||Essential to obtain organically rich compost|
|Worms||Digest decomposed matter and release worm castings that provide plants with the nutrients they need for growth|
|Carbon-nitrogen mix (brown and green waste)||Essential to create the right temperature for creating compost from green waste and to kill seeds and disease|
|Bacteria (EMO’s)||Will decompose the food before the worms eat it|
|Soldier Flies||Not essential but devours waste food quicker than worms or bacteria|
|Other Beneficial Bugs||Cockroaches and other insects that help in the decomposition process (including maggots if putting meat in a compost pile – not recommended for most composters except the Compot.|
1. Open Air Composting
Open Air Composting is traditionally a pile of green and brown matter in your backyard.
More often than not it is a bay constructed of anything you can get your hands on that is cheap and easy to put together.
Or you might have a couple of bins upturned sitting on the ground like the Gedye bin you can buy in a shop.
Wire cages are also used inlaid with piping around the edges to hold water and capture heat.
This can then be used for hot water systems in sustainability situations.
Open Air Composting is generally considered to be a Hot Composting method. Some people often call it a Cold Composting when smaller quantities of waste are used because it does not build up the same amount of heat.
To me, Cold Composting still produces heat and therefore is not technically cold composting.
Perhaps one could call it Warm Composting as the only way you could completely cold compost something is to let it rot in the fridge. And we all know that smell in the fridge.
2. Direct Composting
Direct Compost is simply digging a hole or trench in the ground and burying your scraps.
It is also probably the oldest and most effective method of composting, but like all other methods of composting it too has its limitations. The main one being that it takes a long time to decompose unless you chop everything up.
You can only bury fruit and veg or you run the risk of it being dug up by all sorts of garden critters from birds to vermin. And you have to keep digging holes.
It does, however, produce an abundance of worms that then help to nourish your garden and improve your soil.
3. Tumbler Composting
Tumbler Composting comes in many shapes and sizes of single to double units that you may purchase commercially from your local hardware store.
For many people, this is a great system if you are relatively strong and keen to turn it every day or every few days.
For others, it is hard work especially if you are getting on in years. But you can get some mechanized ones that make turning easier.
You often need two of these systems so you can let one sit for a few months to fully decompose before you empty it. While this is happening you fill the other one up.
This can be a good system if you have a large amount of green and brown waste to dispose of and have the space to fit this system.
If you are only filling it with green and brown waste then a bay system would be just as good though you may have to watch out for snakes and rats nesting in the warm compost.
4. Worm Farm Composting
Worm Farm Composting for many is the most common and preferred choice of composting because of their capabilities to grow worms, produce compost and compost tea and keep rats out of your compost.
The worms produce castings concentrated with nutrients lower in nitrogen compared to other composting methods.
Worm farms can be utilized even if you have no garden.
I think everyone has tried at some point in time to make their own worm farm with varying degrees of success using anything they can find that is cheap.
Do not house them in metal containers as copper leaches out, which is toxic to your worms.
I personally have tried foam containers only to find the worm juice eats out the foam so they leak everywhere.
Unless you have them on the ground somewhere so the nutrients can go directly into the soil you end up with a big mess.
If you use plastic containers you can collect the juice but then you have to add a tap to drain it off or some way of rotating the containers to collect the worm tea.
They need to be kept out of the sun, frost, and rain, and somewhere that’s not too cold either.
Worms are temperamental little critters and will try and escape their containers if the conditions are not right and they are not happy.
It is said that you should use local worms for your area. I personally have no experience with this so you would have to try worms from other areas to know for sure if they will survive.
Local Worm Types
- South Australia Red Worms (Lumbricus rubellus) and Tiger worms (Eisenia fetida) under ideal conditions are said to rapidly reproduce 8 to 1500 worms
- The Tropics use Pontoscolex corethrunus or Pheretima group, commonly found in gardens
- Fishing worms are apparently not good for composting.
If you can be bothered (according to Bob) you need to test the pH of each batch as some may be are more acidic than others.
But who has time for this or could be bothered.
That’s why I love the Compot because the local worms in your garden will come and you don’t need to add worms unless you have really bad soil.
5. EMO Composting
EMO Composting or Effective MicroOrganisms is a system generally used for indoor composting but can be used by anyone who likes this method of composting.
The most common product using EMO’s is the Bokashi but other indoor systems can use it plus there are some systems that use a carbon filter in the lid as well to filter odors.
Generally speaking, you need two of these, so while one is sitting the other is being filled.
You can collect juice to use in your garden.
But you cannot put everything from your kitchen is the Bokashi System.
You can buy the EMO online through many sites selling the Bokashi System.
You can use the EMO’s in other systems if you so desire to aid the composting process.
6. Combination Composting
Combination Composting or Compot Composting is a combination method of open-air composting, direct composting, vermicomposting, and EMO composting.
All the elements of composting are used and will suit most household circumstances.
For some people, it too has its challenges. But for me, the challenges are less and the rewards are better.
You can compost ‘ALL’ your kitchen waste and not just ‘some’ of it.
So ultimately you have over 50% less waste each week to put in your council bin.
Just Fill…Forget…Refill…when ready and give it a good clean out once a year.
It is faster and requires less work than most other composters.
And it nourishes your soil with all your own waste.
To me, it is the easiest composter I have ever used.
7. Commercial Composting
Commercial Composting is different to backyard composting and uses different materials.
The Compost is made in long rows using such materials as, sawdust, pine bark, sand plus ferrous sulphate and maybe some sulphate of ammonia all mixed together.
It is usually turned every 3 to 4 days and is generally ready in 6 weeks for bagging.
There is not much nutrient value in the cheap commercial compost.
But there are small independent commercial compost companies that produce a better quality product, than the large commercial compost companies. They are however more expensive.
Some producers such as McLeod’s Agriculture are certified organic as well.
The old saying “you get what you pay for” certainly applies to commercial compost.
The cheaper commercial compost is a good filler for raised garden beds or to backfill a Compot in clay or sandy soil.
Or it can be used to mix with composted soil to fill a pot plant perhaps.
If you are buying commercial grade compost to grow things it is best to buy a high-quality propagation mix.
8. Mechanical Composting
Mechanical Composting is an efficient method of composting that uses electricity to create the heat required and rotation of the contents required to produce semi-composted waste literally within a 24 hour period.
This system suits restaurants, hotels, motels, hospitals, schools, kindergartens and any large institution creating large amounts of waste from many people. It is a manageable in-house system instead of sending your waste off to council tips. You do however need to further compost the waste so need someone to collect the leftover contents for further composting in a garden bed or bay composting system.
There are also small systems that suit some people for their private residence but they can be quite expensive and will, of course, cost you ongoing electricity. Like all composters they to come with some pros and cons, but they do produce fast semi-composted soil.
8 methods of composting is a guide to a number of composting methods that you might want to consider using in your home or business.
Some are similar, some are the same, some work better as a combination and some are just different. Either way composting is still the best thing you can do for your business, your garden, and the environment.
Much of the damaging effects to the environment comes from the methane produced in large council tips. Methane is worse than co2 for the environment. Keeping your waste out of the council tips reduces methane waste and ultimately helps the environment.
If you have time to grow your own veggies and utilize your compost then that is an added bonus.
Ideally, we all should play our part in reducing council waste.
How you do it is up to you, but whatever method you choose – doing something is better than nothing.
Pros and Cons of Open Air Composting
Pros and Cons of Direct Trench Composting
Pros and Cons of Tumbler Composting
Pros and Cons of Worm Farm Composting
Pros and Cons of EMO Composting
Pros and Cons of Combined Compot Composting
Pros and Cons of Commercial Composting
Pros and Cons of Mechanical Composting
you need to know where your horse food came from before you use horse poo in your compost or on your garden. It will certainly make you question where you get your horse poo from and what the horses were fed. A very eye opening read. ENJOY
Composting Horse Manure – BEWARE
Composting Horse Manure – BEWARE because you need to know where your horse food came from before you use horse poo in your compost or on your garden.
I was going to condense this article, but I think the full article will be better for you all to read. It will certainly make you question where you get your horse poo from and what the horses were fed. A very eye-opening read. ENJOY
Be careful you don’t get more than you bargain for
This is a great article taken from: -Town and Country Farmer. Jan/Feb 2016, Vol
33 No 1. Article Written by Wayne Jeffery
Ever since Ian and I struck the first blow in our veggie patch adventure one of our main objectives has been to improve the soil quality. Almost every crop seems to thrive in nutrient rich, friable, well-drained soil and when you start with a dry, rocky, dusty paddock you know it’s going to be a long haul.
Over the years we have worked hard on mulch collection and manure additions, especially in our poly tunnel glasshouse. This year we were particularly excited at the possibility of having home grown tomatoes as early as November. So, can you imagine the sheer shock, frustration and anger that we felt on finding out that we have been inadvertently poisoning the very plants we are trying to nurture?
Seriously! It turns out that the horse manure we have been collecting and mulching is laced with residual herbicides.
Now my gardening love affair with poo started way back on the family farm when dad and I used to clean out the neighbours chook sheds. We would shovel out the manure onto the trailer and then spread it around our apple trees. Dry, dusty, dirty work but great for the trees and at the right price!
Over the years the availability of chook poo has declined but around our area more and more properties seem to have bags of horse poo out. the front for sale. Ian and I arranged to leave a trailer at a nearby property and have it loaded with the mixture of rice hulls and horse manure when the stables were cleaned out. After a year of composting, how good would this stuff be for our soil? Tragically, we had never heard of Picloram or the Pyridne family of herbicides.
We had never heard of Clopyralid or Aminopyralid either. Nor nearly two hundred brand names of broad leaf herbicides.
Herbicides that can legally be used in hay and oat production. Herbicides that can end up in horse poo at levels lethal to a vast array of vegetables and flowering plants. Honestly, I can still barely believe it.
I was really keen to get our glasshouse tomatoes growing early this year. I purchased some advanced plants and planted them in beds freshly dug over with a healthy addition from our compost piles. Hard work but well worth it, or so I thought.
Growth was almost non-existent. “Told you it was too early”, grumbled Ian. Gradually there was some growth, but the plants became spindly with the leaves cupping and the tips curling. “Perhaps the rice hulls have leached all the nitrogen out”, mused Ian. “I knew we should have done a soil test”. Sadly, I knew it wasn’t just Ian being Captain Negator either. We also had plenty of other plants that weren’t flourishing.
Rich, friable, well-draining…. Poison?
As fate would have it, I’d planted quite a decent patch of potatoes and filled the trenches primarily with our mulch. Rich, friable, well-draining… Poison! The obviously mutated, twisted, fernlike growth of the potato leaves was the final pointer to our problem. So, with that evidence and a lengthy stint giving google a solid workout the scope and impact of this residual herbicide problem has now become apparent.
If you search the internet yourself (clopyralid horse poo will give you a solid starting point) you will find accounts of the problem from numerous American states, the UK and here in Australia. Instances dating back ten years or more but still occurring today. For those of us who love our gardens there are many cases that make for sombre reading. Commercial composters selling tainted compost, small farmers losing their livelihood. I’m still wavering somewhere between outrage and depression at the situation.
3 Dangerous Herbicides
I’ve added our compost to so many beds in the open paddock, no wonder the climbing beans are deformed, and the peas were a waste of time.
These herbicides can still have an effect on certain plants at levels as low as one part per billion! Tomatoes and potatoes are particularly susceptible, but the list also includes sunflowers, carrots, eggplants, peppers and many more.
Apparently, most chemicals break down quickly in the composting process. Unfortunately, Picloram, Clopyralid and Aminopyralid don’t. They are easily absorbed by unaffected plants (hay and oats) and remain chemically stable and intact through an animal’s digestive system and contaminate manure, urine and stable beds. Just imagine how much tainted urine our rice hulls have soaked up. Argh!
And what a crazy state of affairs. Sure, the herbicide labels have a warning on them. Something along the lines of “Do not apply to crops that will be used for the production of compost or mulch. Such Compost or mulch made from treated plant material may cause damage to susceptible crops and plants!’ Great. Where’s the warning on the hay? The oats? Or most importantly, the manure?
What a Nightmare!
“Some healthy potato plant foliage on the left and our mutated, twisted, fernlike growth on the right.”
Rectification of the problem has been hard, depressing work. And it’s not over yet.
All the soil in our glasshouse has now been wheelbarrowed out and replaced but throughout the patch there remains pockets of mulch, harbouring its toxins ready to nobble our next planting. Constant working of the soil is said to help leach the chemicals out but with the nasties operating at such tiny concentrations it’s hard to be optimistic.
I’m quite surprised that I’ve never come across this problem before. I’ve been warned about importing weeds to the garden by applying manures without composting them but not this disastrous situation.
Imagine how many people have been left scratching their heads wondering why their garden was struggling. I guess the best we can do is to warn others of the problem and source our manures carefully. If the horse owner doesn’t know the history of their horse feed then the manure just isn’t worth the risk. Believe me. We sure found out the hard way.
A solution to the problem
Foot note from Vicki: I have a customer who lives near horse stables attached to a racetrack. She used to collect all the horse manure for the stables, and she ended up with the exact same problem in her garden. The only way she could rectify the problem was to load up the garden with activated charcoal. Activated charcoal absorbs the harmful chemicals and keeps them locked inside the charcoal. This was the only way she could fix the problem without ripping up her whole garden and replacing all the soil. So check what your horses are fed before you use their manure.