Written by – Luke from MIgardener
Compost is vital for the garden. It provides nutrients, retains water, balances pH, and provides a home for billions of beneficial microbes and fungi. Compost is an art, and it is certainly not something you can rush. In this guide, we are going to touch on every aspect of compost from what it is, different styles, how to make it, and the benefits of using it in your garden.
What Is Compost?
Compost is any organic matter in its simplest form. Finished compost is called humus (and no that is not what you eat, that is called hummus) pronounced HEW-MUS. It is black or dark brown, and almost all the original ingredients are unidentifiable. The pH of the compost is neutral or right around 7.0, making it a perfect buffer for acidic or alkaline soils.
This is a pile that is left for years to weather without ever being added to or mixed. The compost is essentially “cold” because it does not heat up like the most common type, the hot compost pile. The benefit to a cold technique is that the lack of extreme heat allows for a more diverse range of beneficial bacteria, insects, and fungi to colonize the pile. It is by far the most natural route. The downside to cold composting is since there is no flipping or adding, or stimulating; the compost may take 1-3 years to break down fully.
Hot composting is the process of piling material up into a large pile, and actively wetting and flipping it to keep specific bacteria highly active. This high level of activity is what generated heat, and can reach up to 180 degrees! A hot compost pile is recognized by the steam that is emitted from the center when flipped. Hot composting is one of the fastest techniques you can use. Due to the level of heat, many weed seeds, diseases, and harmful fungal spores are killed off. However, due to the high levels of heat, many species of beneficial bacteria, worms, and other beneficial insects will die in this environment.
Vermicomposting is the act of putting worms into an enclosed container with food to give them an environment where they can digest food resulting in effortless compost. The nutrient quality of vermicompost is nearly triple that of regular compost. The digestion process also incorporates billions of beneficial microbes into the compost, which interact with plant roots and help to create a healthy environment for life. Vermicomposting is also very easy. Worms require very little care. Feed the worms food scraps at least once a week. Also, worm bins need to have moisture and be indoors because of the many animals that feed on them.
This type of composting that involves anaerobic bacteria breaking down food scraps in an enclosed bucket. Bokashi composting utilizes beneficial bacteria, much like the bacteria found in our stomachs and soil. The bacteria belong primarily to three strains: yeasts, bacteria that produce lactic acids, and (phototrophic) purple non-sulfur bacteria. Bokashi is easy and does not require the maintenance that a hot compost pile does. This technique is the safest if you want to add things that generally wouldn’t be able to be composted. Things like; meats, eggs, and greasy foods. One of the downsides of bokashi is that the starter for the compost must be purchased on a very regular basis. Making the bokashi starter is very dangerous and can breed E. Coli bacteria if done wrong. Also, the process can be stinkier than the other methods.
Making Hot Compost
The steps to generating heat from your compost pile are simple:
Gather equal parts of brown and green material. Brown material, e.g., shredded cardboard, mulched leaves, dead grass clippings are any scraps that will act as a carbon source. Green material, e.g., green grass, plant matter, fruit, and vegetable scraps, will be anything high in nitrogen. Nitrogen feeds bacteria, and its only purpose is to act as a catalyst in the compost pile to stimulate the bacteria.
1 PART BROWN
1 PART GREEN
Pile them up. A small pile (ex. 1’/1′ tall) will NEVER heat up because there is not enough organic matter to feed the microbes and create a core hot enough. The pile must be at least 3 feet wide by 3 feet tall. Your compost pile must be at least 3 ft tall to generate heat.
Moisture is critical to help microbes survive. They need water, and they need lots of it to keep going. After piling the ingredients together, you want to wet the compost pile down. Soaking the pile is not necessary, but you do want to feel a noticeable wet texture in the center, almost that of a damp sponge.
Flipping is vital to ensuring everything composts at the same rate, and also provides food for the microbes. It is essential to flip the outside in. A pitchfork also comes in handy when it comes time to flip. When you flip the compost pile, you will know things are working when you see steam even on a warm day. A healthy pile can reach temperatures of up to 180 degrees! Mix once every week or so as soon as the pile decreases by roughly 1/3 its size.
After about 3-5 months, your compost will cool down and begin to look very black. No matter how much water or flipping you do, the pile just won’t heat up. The compost is finished and ready for use at this point. It is crucial to cover the pile with a tarp; this will ensure that the quality is retained until it is ready to be used in the garden.
Benefits In The Garden
Compost helps to break up clay soil by preventing clay particles from binding to each other. It also helps in sandy soil retain water and nutrients. With a pH of roughly 7.0. , compost makes for a great way to fix acidic soil or alkaline soil. Another benefit of compost is that it contains many minerals essential for plant life. It is rich in minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and many other smaller amounts of trace minerals. This reliable feeding will give your plants exactly what they need. The final benefit of using compost in the garden is that it allows for microbes and fungi to colonize. Having beneficial fungi and bacteria in your soil are proven to give the best results in the garden.
I hope this guide has helped you in some way to make better compost and to incorporate it into your garden.
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