How to make Compost: Pt.1


Compost is so good, and so essential to the establishment of any system. Balcony garden, a big kitchen garden, or just the pot-plants. Surprisingly, despite being such a benchmark of any system that involved growing stuff, it can be quite daunting to make… even tho everything you need is already there, around you, begging to be transformed, with a bit of knowledge and elbow-grease, into kick-arse super-duper soil with added flavours…

I’ve been aware for years that to make really good compost, you need to get the right balance between materials so that you get a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen, or c:n ratio…. Why? Because it is these two elements which all the bacteria and fungi feed on in order to make your compost. Yes that’s right. Compost is a process of actively feeding a huge number of micro-organisims the right stuff in the right amounts, so that they munch and breed and munch some more, converting your pile of poo, paper, greenstuff, whatever into what we call compost. So really, it’s basic organic decomposition, accelerated by the right chemical balance so you don’t have to wait 2 years between having a pile of muck and something that can be a growing medium and general nutrient source for plants (and, therefore in turn, you).

But how to get the right c:n ratio is not something that is intuitive to most people (certainly not me) – I can’t just look at a pile of grass cuttings, or a bucket of food scraps, and say ‘Ah! Clearly that’s a 54:1 ratio right there…’ – it’s tricky… but not anymore! We have a Compost Calculator!

Nick knocked up this little Compost Calculator for us (and you) to use – its an online widgety thing that does the hard thinking for you – you just plug in what materials you have and wiggle their amounts until you get a good ratio. Then, you use those accurate amounts to make a compost pile . Ta da!

So – i went to it, using the compost calculator, and amassed my composty assets. One garbage bin’s worth of food scraps, one bin of grass+weeds from next door, one bin of straw, and one bin of used office paper from our recycling stash. This all comes out with a ratio of 21:1 – which is good. It should make quite a ‘hot’ compost – i.e. one which will heat up quickly and need to be turned more regularly – but that’s fine – in fact, that’s what I want… I need compost and I need it now, so I’m happy to use a 18-day compost method, which requires turning on the 4th day after building the pile, then every second day after that. Theoretically, in 18 days, it should be a steaming pile of goodness, ready to be unleashed on my seedlings, cuttings and general planty bits. But more on the turning later -

To make the pile, make sure you add everything in layers, like a lasagna, so that everything gets as good a mix as possible… and make sure the pile is damp, but not dripping wet – all those micro-organisims need water too, as well as all that lovely food. As a rule, make sure yr pile is at least 1meter cubed in size – smaller than this and it may not work under this method.

If you don’t have enough space to be making a 1m cubed pile (and usually you do, even if you think you don’t – unless you have less than about 3m square outside to use), I would say go find yr nearest spare block and do it there – realistically, ain’t no-one going to steal your pile of decomposing bits in the night, and someone making a pile and then covering it with a tarp in a unused space isn’t an offence, as far as I’m aware. This not only will save you a heap of money on packaged compost and potting mix, it will also get you actually working with the basics of soil and life and all that fabulous stuff, and, last but not least, you’ll get buff! Why on earth would you go to the gym or on a diet when you could just make some damn fine compost instead?

Next: the turning…..

5 Trackbacks

  1. By How to make Compost: Pt.3 « Milkwood on August 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    [...] so here is the final product – three weeks on from the beginning, and 9 days on from the middle of the compost making process. Pretty impressive for three weeks [...]

  2. By How to make Compost: Pt.2 « Milkwood on August 1, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    [...] – the compost pile is made…. fast forward to two weeks later… the compost is composting! Despite my [...]

  3. By Vegie Garden: Autumn Report « Milkwood on August 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    [...] only expecting to use the ‘topsoil’ as a base for no-dig garden beds. So we piled on the compost that Kirsten has been making along with some well aged poo from aunty Linda’s chickens and a very thick layer of spoilt [...]

  4. [...] I just found a cute & delicious video about the composting process, wherein the compost-builder declares (in her enviable Aussie accent) that “the secret to good compost is keeping the correct proportion of carbon and nitrogen within the stuff you use to make the compost, so that all the microorganisms, who actually do the composting for you, can live and multiply while they’re chowing down on the good stuff that you’ve put in the pile.”  {~Video~} [...]

  5. By The Slowpoke: COMPOSTING AT HOME on September 18, 2014 at 7:04 am

    […] Hot composting is an active process that gets you to the end result fast – in anywhere from three weeks to four months. Using a cubic metre of organic matter, the pile is turned often – every couple of days – giving the microbes more oxygen and speeding up the decomposition process. The pile gets hot (up to 65°C) due to the activity of microorganisms. Though this is a great way to get compost and fast, it’s more suitable to those who have the space required, and time. You can find a how-to on it from Milkwood, here. […]

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