What is composting and how does it work?

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Composting adds nutrients to the soil, helps the soil retain these nutrients as well as water, and keeps the soil well aerated. Compost is made up of yard waste as well as kitchen scraps. Do not put meat, coal, and charcoal ashes, dairy products, animal litter, plants that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides, or diseased plants into the compost pile. All these materials have an adverse effect to the beneficial microbes and/or the rest of the materials in the compost pile.

Bacteria and other microbes rapidly multiply in the compost pile. They are essential in breaking down the material to usable compost. Heat is generated through oxidation, which speeds up the decomposition. As the microbes break down the material, nutrients become available to larger decomposers, which in turn further break down the material.

There are three basic stages to compost:

  1. Raw material; which is comprised of yard and kitchen waste.
  2. Half finished material; a great fertilizer to add to garden soil as it will continue to break down.
  3. Finished material; all the materials are broken down and are great as a top dressing.

The easiest way to make compost is to start a pile of yard and kitchen waste in a hole in the ground. Dig a hole approximately three feet in diameter and two feet deep. Pile the dirt next to the hole, as the dirt will be used during the decomposition period. Alternate layers of waste and dirt. The dirt dug from the compost hole is beneficial as it already contains microbes, earthworms, and other beneficial critters. Within a few months, the bottom of the pile will have broken down enough to be used in the garden.

Turning of the compost pile will speed up the decomposition of the materials. A pile that is not turned periodically may become overly wet and oxygen intolerant bacteria will create a sewer smell. Use a garden fork to turn the compost pile. This tool will break up any matted material and will grab more compost than a shovel. Compost should only be turned when it is ready. If turned while the temperature in the center of the pile is at least 130 degrees F., the decomposing may slow down. At this temperature, the microbes are actively breaking down the material. When the temperature in the center of the pile has dropped to the same temperature as the top of the pile, it is ready to be turned. When turned, air and new material is moved to the center of the pile and the decomposition cycle starts over again.