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Compost Frequently Asked Questions

Organic Gardening Simplified

© Pam Walatka


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Do I have to buy a compost bin?
Absolutely not. Nature has been making compost without bins since the origin of soil. You do not have to buy anything.

My compost pile.






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     Introduction
  1. What is compost
  2. What goes into compost?
  3. Does it matter how I make compost?
  4. What is the recipe for balancing brown and green materials?
  5. How do I collect kitchen waste?
  6. Is the compost going to smell?
  7. Do I have to turn the compost?
  8. Are there two kinds of compost?
  9. What is compost good for?
  10. Can I use compost for potted plants?
  11. Should I put compost on my lawn?
  12. Should I compost if beginning a garden for the first time?
  13. How long does it take to get compost?

Compost Bins

  1. Do I have to buy a compost bin?
  2. Can I just pile the compost on the ground?
  3. I want to make a compost bin. Can you recommend a design?
  4. Can I make the compost in a closed container?
  5. I really want to buy a bin. What do you recommend?

Ingredients (good and evil)

  1. Can I put dog doo into the compost? [No!]
  2. Are grass clippings good in compost?
  3. Are leaves good in compost?
  4. Are leaves too acidic? What about soil pH?
  5. What about shredded paper?
  6. Should I add manure?
  7. Should I add worms?
  8. What about coffee grounds?

Further Info

  1. How much compost will I get?
  2. When should I start a new compost pile?
  3. Why would I want to make compost?

INTRODUCTION

What is compost?
Compost is a mixture of organic matter that decomposes and turns into extra-rich fluffy dirt. See our page: Compost Simplified.
What goes into compost?
Compost is made out of organic materials such as kitchen scraps, weeds, and lawn clippings, plus dirt and air. Kitchen scraps include peels, vegetable trimmings, crushed egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, and no-meat-no-sweet-no-grease leftovers. Usually the pile is made in layers of the different ingredients, because the different materials help each other decompose: a layer of yard trimmings, a layer of kitchen scraps, a layer of dirt, a layer of lawn trimmings, another layer of dirt, etc. Intersperse layers of dry vegetation with layers of soil and layers of green vegetation/kitchen waste. Each layer is about two or three inches thick. Let the rain fall in, and in dry weather add enough water to keep the pile moist. You do not have to be exact about these layers; just pile on what you have, and work towards keeping a balance. Again, see our page: Compost Simplified for details.
Does it matter how I make compost?
As my expert-gardener mom says, "I don't know why people worry about how to make compost. Compost is going to happen. If you take organic materials (things that used to be alive) and mix them with dirt in a pile, and wait, they will turn into good rich soil. This is a basic law of Nature. You cannot stop compost from happening."
What is the recipe for balancing brown and green materials?
For the fastest breakdown and least smell, keep a balance of one part green materials to three parts brown materials. When you have about an inch-thick layer of kitchen scraps on your pile, add two or three inches of dirt/straw/dry weeds. Or just throw a shovel-full of brown materials on the pile whenever you empty your compost bowl.
  • Green materials = fresh grass clippings, kitchen scraps, green weeds and garden trimmings.
  • Brown materials = fallen leaves, dry weeds, shredded newspaper, nut shells, untreated wood chips or shavings, straw, and soil.
How do I collect kitchen waste?
I keep an ordinary 2.5 quart mixing bowl near my kitchen garbage. I just put kitchen scraps into the compost bowl instead of into the garbage or garbage disposal. (In an ideal house, the garbage disposal would empty into the compost pile.) About once a day, I take the bowl out to the yard, empty it onto the compost pile, and then throw some dirt on top of it. Near the compost pile, I have a pile of loose dirt leftover from deep-digging a bed. The only important feature of the compost-collecting container is that it be open to the air. A closed container will stink.
Is the compost going to smell?
A good compost pile does not smell much. You can have it near your house and as close as ten feet from your patio area. In order not to smell bad, compost needs three things: dirt, brown yard waste (such as fallen leaves or dry weeds), and air. See recipe above. Microorganisms in dirt eat kitchen garbage scraps and break them down into compost. Without the microorganisms in dirt, compost just rots in a stinky way. With the dirt, the compost decomposes into beautiful earthy-smelling, fluffy dirt. Another essential ingredient of compost is brown yard waste, such as dried leaves or dried weeds. The third anti-stink ingredient is air. The kitchen garbage scraps need to be oxidized. If you want to make your compost really stink, try enclosing it in an air-tight plastic container. Ugh!
Do I have to turn the compost?
No. I almost never turn mine, except to fork the spread-out edges back onto the top. If you do turn yours, use a garden fork; it goes into the pile more easily than a shovel. A pitch fork is too fragile, you need a solid garden fork. A turned pile does decompose faster, but what is the rush?
Are there two kinds of compost?
Yes, hot compost and worm compost. Hot compost can get quite hot to the touch, and decomposes quickly. Worm compost gets warm but not too hot for worms to live in it. Hot compost is more difficult to make: you need a bin at least one cubic yard (that is, at least three feet long on each side) and you need to be careful to add three parts of dry-brown ingredients, such as dried weeds or leaves, for each part of green ingredients. See recipe above. Also, fresh manure usually makes a compost pile hot. Choose hot compost if you do not mind adding manure, and if you are in a hurry. Worm compost is for the more relaxed Zen gardener.
What is compost good for?
Compost is good for improving any garden soil or potting medium. Compost is nature-made dirt. It has a fluffy consistency which is is good for root growth. It is full of nutrients that plants need to grow. Composting will help your garden.
Can I use compost for potted plants?
Yes. I trowel compost from my done pile straight into my pots. I fill the pot with compost. Pure compost is my potting mix.
Should I put compost on my lawn?
Gardeners usually do not put compost on top of established lawns because that would be like piling dirt on your lawn, but compost dug into the ground before you plant a lawn is a good idea.
Should I compost if beginning a garden for the first time?
Yes, do make a compost pile if beginning a garden for the first time; you will have better results. See next question.
How long does it take to get compost?
A compost pile usually takes at least three months to break down. A relaxed pile may take six months. You may need to buy compost if you are ready to start gardening and your compost is not ready.

COMPOST BINS

Do I have to buy a compost bin?
Absolutely not. Nature has been making compost without bins since the origin of soil. You do not have to buy anything except a shovel to be an organic gardener.
Can I just pile the compost on the ground?
Oh yes, that is what I do. After all, it is a compost pile. I just have a compost area in my garden; I pile my compost there. I usually have three piles:
  1. done compost ready to use
  2. compost-in-progress
  3. dry weeds and dirt from yard cleanup, ready to shovel on top of the kitchen scraps added to the compost-in-progress.
The Sassos, a famous gardening couple in Saratoga, California, have a hallway-sized area where they pile refuse from their numerous herd gardens. They start a pile at one end of the area. When the pile is three feet deep, they start a new pile right next to the first, and so forth, working their way down to the end of the area. As the first end becomes ready, they take the finished compost away to put on the garden.
I want to make a compost bin. Can you recommend a design?
As I said above, I just pile mine on the ground, but I have seen some very nice bins. Good bins feature the same idea: the over-all bin is separated into three side-by-side bins. You fill the first bin with compostable stuff, then let it sit and decompose while you fill up the second bin. By the time the second bin is full, the first is probably ready to use, and you start filling up the third while the second decomposes. Once you get going, you have three bins: one with nice fluffy done compost to use now, one in the process of decomposing, and one in the process of being filled up. Each bin is a cube at least three feet on each side. The bins are constructed out of lumber or discarded wooden palettes. Palettes can be connected to each other with nails or with wire wound around the joints. Some people cover the top of their bins, some don't. The back and sides and dividing walls are made out of wood with spaces in between for air, or wood frames with wire mesh. The fronts are made out of removable slats, for when you want to shovel the compost out, or just left open. See the video at lazycompost.com/index.shtml" Here is an attempt to show what a three-bin composter looks like from the top:
Top view
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Can I make the compost in a closed container?
No, no, no no, no. That's what makes compost stink--the lack of air. See Is the compost going to smell?. Many readers have written to me with this question; there seems to be an idea going around that enclosing compost in a plastic bin will contain the odor. But a good compost pile with air and dirt hardly smells at all, while an enclosed plastic container, when you open it to put in garbage, smells like dead monsters.
I really want to buy a bin. What do you recommend?
If you must buy a bin, buy one that is open to the air, made of wire mesh or something like that. But I still say you can just pile your compost on the ground. I guess a bin does have the advantage of being a little neater. Maybe whether or not to buy a bin depends on whether or not your compost area is visible from the rest of your yard. See the video at lazycompost.com/index.shtml for a way to make an easy compost bin from a puppy fence.

INGREDIENTS

Can I put dog doo into the compost?
No. Dog doo (or doo from any meat eating animal such as rat or pig) contains pathogens that never decompose. Do NOT put dog doo in your compost. You can bury it under non-fruit-bearing trees, such as pine trees. Dog doo will decompose into dirt, and that dirt will be fertilizer; you just do not want to get it into your fruits or vegetables, and you do not want to be handling it, because microorganisms such as hookworms can get into your body through your skin. Do not put it in the flower bed either--you will be digging there. In other words, do put dog doo into the ground where it can decompose, but do not put it into your nice compost pile or in the garden.
Are grass clippings good in compost?
Yes, but not in one big mass. Grass clippings make excellent compost, but they tend to clump together and exclude air. Sprinkle them in shallow layers on your compost. If you have a small compost pile, make the grass-clipping layers two inches or less thick. In a big compost pile, grass layers can be three inches thick. Intersperse the grass layers with layers of dirt or kitchen waste. I just let my grass clippings fall behind the mower, to decompose and turn into nitrogen rich fertilizer. If I am expecting company, I rake up the clippings into a pile near the lawn. Eventually, they decompose. CAUTION: lawns are often treated with Weed and Feed or other broad-leaf weed killers. These poisons persist; they could kill your vegetable plants if the poison is in your compost. Therefore, use only your own unpoisoned lawn clippings (if you have a gardening service, find out what they use).
Are leaves good in compost?
Yes, leaves make great compost, but they do decompose slowly. A few thin layers of leaves help let air into your pile, and dried-brown leaves help keep your compost smelling OK. If you have a large number of leaves, you might want to make a separate pile just for leaves, and maybe lawn clippings. Let the pile decompose into leaf mold, nature's way of making new soil under trees. It may take years (the process is a somewhat different from the compost process, and slower). Patience. The result is a great soil amendment.

I have a pile of decomposing leaves, but mostly I rake my leaves from under the sycamore trees to under fruit trees, for a thick mulch. Some gardeners disagree with me and say you have to let them decompose first, then use them as mulch. See the next question.

Are leaves too acidic? What about soil pH??
Every organic gardener should test their soil pH and compost pH--you really do need to know whether your soil is too acid, too alkaline or about right. See pH Chart for details. Get a soil test kit from a nursery or from a seed/garden company, or get pH testing litmus paper strips from a pharmacy: mix a spoonful of soil into a glass of water; dip in the strip; compare the color to the chart that comes with the strips. If your soil tends to be acidic, periodically sprinkle an alkaline ingredient such as wood ashes, lime, or oyster shells on your compost pile. If your our soil tends to be alkaline or OK--beware of adding lime.

Do not do anything to change the pH before you test; in matters of pH, better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing.

What about shredded paper?
Shredded paper is good in compost, but not un-shredded paper. You can tear up your newspapers or use shredded printer paper. A stack of flat paper fails to decompose. Put a wire-grid cylinder around your pile if the paper blows away. Most ink these days is soy based, non-toxic.
Should I add manure?
Manure is a basic, old-fashioned, excellent ingredient for compost. Fresh manure speeds the decomposition and adds nitrogen. Use cow, horse, chicken, or bunny manure, or any manure from an animal that does not eat meat or dog/cat food. Do not use dog doo. You can go to the nearest farm and get manure usually for free (put it in buckets, paper bags, or the bed of a pickup truck). Or keep a pet bunny. If you hate the idea of being near manure, never mind, you do not need to use it. A compost pile will work fine, especially if you use worms. See next question.
Should I add worms?
Worms are great. They will crawl into your pile anyway, but you can speed things up by adding more. Get them from a bait store (night crawlers or red worms). Charles Darwin discovered that worms help make soil, by digesting garbage and outputting, so to speak, enriched soil. If you have a lot of fresh manure in your pile, the pile will be too hot for earthworms; worms are usually considered the alternative to manure.
What about coffee grounds?
Coffee grounds are great in compost. Many coffee shops will give you great big bag fulls for free. Stir them in, though, or they might clump together. Coffee grounds are acidic; see pH.

FURTHER INFO

How much compost will I get?
Oh, disappointing news: you only get about a third or a quarter of the amount of stuff you put on the pile. Compost BREAKS DOWN material--it gets smaller. Just add as much material as you can while you are making the compost.
When should I start a new pile?
When your pile is at least 3 feet high, or when much of it has turned into compost. I rake the undecomposed stuff off of the top and onto a new pile, then turn over (with a shovel or garden fork) the almost-ready compost underneath.
Why would I want to make compost?
  1. To help Mother Nature replenish the earth. Earth is another word for dirt. Our planet is the only known planet lucky enough to have dirt. Dirt is made out of things that used to be alive, mixed with bits of minerals. Nature breaks down formerly-living materials to make earth. You can help. You can be a part of the natural cycle of life on earth.
  2. To improve your garden; compost makes the best possible garden soil; it is rich in humus (for better soil texture and water retention) rich in nutrients (for better growth) and fluffy (for better root growth).
  3. To save money by not having to buy compost.

See also: Compost Simplified Please send me your questions.

Credits: thank you to these gentle readers who were the first to email questions to me: Pat Williams, Cynthia Stagner, Kay Talley, Mk Woltzen, Cathi Llewellyn, Willowfish, smuchez, Cailin Goldberg-Meehan, John Schmidt, and Jason Kramer.

Web work by Sandy Johan and Pam Walatka
copyright 2014
pamwalatka@yahoo.com