There is a definite sense of satisfaction, looking at a barrow load of nutrient rich compost you created yourself. There are just so many advantages to creating your own... you know what's gone into it, it costs nothing but time and some effort, and of course it's a great way to recyle much of your garden and kitchen waste.
I will be the first to admit, for many years my compost attempts were hit and miss. Sometimes they worked, more often they didn't. And I really didn't know why. As far as I knew, you just throw some garden waste into a pile, come back in a few months and your should have compost. Well, that's far from being the case.
Sometimes that works, but it's more good luck than good management. However, if you know the principles behind how compost is created, you will get high quality compost every time.Those 3 vital ingredients to a good compost heap are... size, a good brown and green waste ratio, and moisture content.
Size: As in most things, size matters. A good workable size seems to be approximately a 1 meter square base, with a height of anywhere between 50cm and 1 meter. Any smaller, and the heap just won't generate the heat required to break down. Much larger, and it becomes unwieldy to turn. I have found this size works well, and can create high quality compost in about 3 months.
Green and Brown waste: This is what I didn't understand, when I first began making my own compost. A pile consisting of just lawn clippings (green waste) simply wouldn't break down well. It has to have a mix of brown waste in with it. Brown waste is what provided the Carbon, and green waste provides the Nitrogen. Both of these are required for the heap to work it's magic. Roughly 50-50 although you don't need to be exact with measurements. It is also good to mix these together, perhaps by layering.
Moisture Content: Keeping the heap at a good moisture level is perhaps the biggest "secret" to getting good compost. Not too dry, not too damp. I generally give it a good watering as I'm building the pile, cover it, and then water each time I turn it (if it looks like it needs it).
The compost heap above is not completed yet, there is still material to be added. It has a good mix of green and brown material, is in a nice shady spot do it won't dry out too quickly, and is already starting to build some heat in the center. A good sign! The green material used is lawn clippings, some weeds from the vege garden, and a few kitchen scraps. The brown material is old leaves and some tomatoes and zuccinnni plants.
If we expand those three things that you need, we can add a couple more.
Heat: if your pile is generating heat, your compost will break down much quicker. While experts recommend 50-75c (which is darned hot!) I have found anything that is warm enough to feel uncomfortable if you place your hand into the middle of the heap for more than a few seconds is enough. It will take a few days for this to build up. The heat is caused by micro-organisims breaking down the green matter in your pile (food scraps, lawn clippings, green weeds etc). This is why a pile of leaves takes so long to compost, maybe 12 months or more. It will not generate the heat to break down quickly. However, mix leaves with kitchen scraps and you will slice your composting time dramatically.
Worms: Once the heat has died down (perhaps 6 weeks or so after starting the heap) then the worms will move into the bottom of the pile and begin to convert the matter into compost. This is when the magic begins! Never underestimate the importance of worms!
Turning: We can't overlook the importance of turning a compost heap. Yes, it will break down eventually if you don't turn it. But do you want to wait six months for good compost when you could have it in three? This is one reason I suggest a height of between 50cm and 1 meter. If you can turn a heap in 5 minutes, you are far more likely to do it regularly! About every 7-10 days for the first 6 weeks. Once the heat has gone (and worms are starting to move in) you can just cover it with an old tarp and leave it until it's ready to use.
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