Compost Making

How Compost Happens

When compost making, organic matter is transformed into compost through the work of microorganisms, soil fauna, enzymes and fungi. With the right materials, the decomposition process can work very rapidly, sometimes in as little as 3 to 4 weeks! It all depends on the kind of environment you provide for the decomposers to do their work.

Even if you donít provide the optimum environment for compost making, decomposition will still happen. Using a compost bin, you can continue to add materials to the top of the pile and remove dark, nutrient-rich compost below, but it may take several months to cure the compost.

If you would like to make an abundance of compost in the shortest amount of time, the trick is to balance the following four ingredients:


Carbon-rich materials are the energy food for microorganisms. You can identify high-carbon plant materials because they are dry, tough, or fibrous, and tan or brown in color. Examples are dry leaves, straw, rotted hay, sawdust, shredded paper, and cornstalks.


High-nitrogen materials provide the protein-rich components that microorganisms require to grow and multiply. Freshly pulled weeds, fresh grass clippings, over-ripe fruits and vegetables, kitchen scraps and other moist green matter are the sorts of nitrogen-rich materials youíll probably have on hand. Other high-protein organic matter includes kelp meal, seaweed, manure and bone meal.


Moisture is very important for the composting process. But too much moisture will drown the microorganisms, and too little will dehydrate them. A general rule of thumb is to keep the material in your compost pile as moist as a well-wrung sponge. If you need to add water, insert your garden hose into the middle of the pile in several places, or sprinkle the pile with water as needed. Keeping the cover on will make it easier to maintain the right moisture level.


To do their work most efficiently, microorganisms require a lot of oxygen. When your first compost pile is assembled, there will probably be plenty of air between the layers of materials. But as the microorganisms begin to work, they will start consuming oxygen. Unless you turn or in some way aerate your compost pile, they will run out of oxygen and become sluggish. This will slow down the decomposition.

Creating the perfect nutritional diet for you compost is possible... but not always practical. Keeping a balance of these four ingredients to any homemade compost is the key for a quick and effective composting experience, however, using a compost starter can help the process along quite well.

Composting Tips:

  1. Keep a pile of straw, dry leaves, or peat moss near your compost pile. Sprinkle a little on the top of the pile each time you add fresh weeds or kitchen scraps. These high-carbon materials will help keep the carbon/nitrogen ratio in balance.
  2. Shredded materials compost more rapidly. The more surface area for microbes to attack, the sooner youíll have usable compost. You can chop your materials with a machete or shovel, run them through a shredding machine, or run over them with your lawn mower.
  3. Cover your pile for best results. It will deter pests, hold in heat, and keep the moisture level more constant. A pile thatís dry or too waterlogged takes a very long time to break down.
  4. In northern states, cover your pile in late fall to avoid leaching nutrients and to prevent the pile from becoming waterlogged. A drier pile will thaw more quickly the following spring.
  5. If skunks and burrowing rodents are hanging around your compost pile, you can use hardware cloth or purchase a Rodent Screen to place in the bottom of the composter. Avoid putting meat or fatty foods in your pile: they attract all sorts of animals.
  6. Aerate your compost frequently. If using a continuous compost bin, or a compost pile, use an aerator tool to assist you in properly turning the pile. If using a batch compost bin, then remember to turn daily.
  7. Kitchen compost pails makes it easy to collect food scraps.
  8. Most people donít bother charting the temperature curve in their compost pile. They just try to get a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen, keep the pile moist and well aerated, and wait until everything looks pretty well broken down. If you want to get a little more scientific about it, use a compost thermometer.

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