Composting is both an art and a science. But don’t let the science scare you. Composting can be boiled down to a few key steps.
1.Layer upon layer of “stuff.” A compost pile is like a sandwich-every layer has a purpose, but the layers work best together. The first layer in your compost pile should be about 6 inches of dry, brown materials like leaves, corn stalks, and broken sticks and branches. Because this hodgepodge isn’t compact, air can circulate in between all the materials. A 6-inch “green” layer is next, including grass clippings, kitchen waste (but not meat or fats), and vegetable scraps. Then add a 2-inch layer of manure or already decomposed compost and finish with topsoil. Repeat the layers, adding water to the dry layers, until you have a 4-foot tall pile. Why layers? They create insulation (more about heat below) and a balance of carbon and nitrogen, the two elements needed to feed microorganisms that will run around your compost pile decomposing every bit.
2.Temperature and moisture…check! While the layers are decomposing, the bacteria and microorganisms heat things up-literally. But that’s good because heat means that the microorganisms are doing their job of eating the material. Purchase a compost thermometer from your local garden center or just hold your hand over the top of the pile to feel the heat radiating. If it feels cool (under 50ºF), the pile is likely too dry. Add water until the material is moist. You want those microorganisms to keep working, and they only do when they have water.
3.Turn it. When it’s 140º-160ºF in the center, the microorganisms haven eaten everything in the center, and it’s time to “turn” the pile and mix the layers together. Use a pitchfork or a rototiller to get the compost blended. How often you should turn your compost varies depending on where you live. In areas with cold winters, your compost pile could take all winter before you need to turn it. In warmer climates, you may need to turn it every few weeks.
If you notice a weird smell while your pile is decomposing, it could signal an issue. Keep “a nose” out for: the smell of ammonia (from too much of green stuff) or the smell of rotten eggs (from not enough air circulation). If you notice your compost isn’t fermenting at all, your pile is probably too dry.
You’re compost is ready when the material is dark and crumbly. Work the compost into your garden soil before sowing or use it as a seed-starting mix. One of the biggest benefits of using compost is improved soil structure, which allows the soil to retain water and nutrients so plants can take in what they need, when they need it. Making your own compost also has the added benefit of reducing landfill waste.