The Art and Science of Composting

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Rita's Monthly Gardening Tips,  October 5, 2015

The Art and Science of Composting

Why Compost

Compost is the decomposed remains of plant material. It resembles rich, crumbly soil and has the following benefits to your garden:

  • Provides nutrients
  • Improves the quality of soil
  • Balances pH and suppresses plant diseases
  • Increases biodiversity of soil life
  • Enhances water-holding capacity

What Makes Plant Material Decompose

The science of decomposition is the process of animal life eating the plant remains, digesting it, and expelling it. Then another form of animal life eats it again and expels it, etc. These compost critters are called decomposers. The decomposers vary from microscopic bacteria and fungi to more visible plant decomposing critters such as worms, beetles, sow bugs, earwigs, slugs, and snails. Other critters in the compost pile such as spiders, ants, and centipedes play their part in the decomposing food chain by eating dead or living compost critters. The result of all of this eating and expelling is a nutrient-rich material called compost. The better we do at attending to the needs of these compost critters, the better they create compost for us.

To make a compost pile, the recipe is Greens + Browns + Water + Air = Compost. These are the ingredients that the compost critters need to do their job.

Examples of Greens:

  • Kitchen scraps
  • Plant material that is still fresh (green weeds, clippings, etc.)
  • Animal manure from herbivores (rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs, etc.)

Examples of Browns:

  • Plant material that is dried out (dead leaves, dead weeds, etc.)
  • Straw
  • Shredded paper

Points About Water

Provide water to the pile to keep damp. If the pile is too dry or too wet, the compost critters are not able to function. Cover the pile in winter to prevent winter rains from leaching nutrients out of pile. Also, covering the pile during the rest of the year keeps it from drying out too fast and allows the compost critters more dark, moist area to turn into compost for you.

Points About Air

Compost critters need air to breathe. Turning the material occasionally will help to reintroduce air. Alternatively, coarser material added will create air pockets.

The Process of Composting

The goal is to balance the greens and browns, adding them in alternating layers of about 2-6 inches. Water each time you add dry material.

Water and air should also be kept in balance. Too much water squeezes out the air spaces. Conversely, too much air leads to a drier pile. The compost critters need steady moisture and air to function well.

When the bin is full or the pile is approximately 3 inches x 3 inches, stop adding material. Continue to water and turn as needed. New material should be added to a new pile so the first one can finish cooking (decomposing).

When to Compost

Compost piles can be made any time of the year using available material from your own yard and kitchen. In the coldest, wettest months of winter, composting of kitchen scraps can be done in a worm bin on a covered patio or in a garage.


Where to Compost

Place the compost bin or pile near your garden so it is easier to transport garden material to the compost pile and finished compost to your garden. The site should also have easy access to water. You’ll need to water it approximately once per week. Situating the pile in the shade helps to keep it from drying out as fast. Sunshine is not needed to create heat because the heat is created by the activity of the micro- and macro-organisms moving around. It doesn’t matter whether your pile is touching the ground or not.

Compost can be tilled or dug into the soil or used as a mulch on top of the soil.

There’s nothing better to go into your garden than compost.

Happy Gardening!