Some Tips on Making Compost

As every gardener knows, one of the key things you need if you are going to grow plants is good soil. When using permaculture this necessity can sometimes be challenged; for example, in very dry or extreme (very dry/very wet) climates such as Mediterranean, some people recommend using no soil at all but instead growing all of your plants in gravel or small pebbles. This technique, suggested by for example Hemenway (1), is known as xeriscaping and might be worth a try if your garden is particularly prone to drought. On the other end of the spectrum, aquaculture is a technique that involves one’s crops being entirely submerged in water, which has been used for centuries in Asia and whose modern proponents include Christenson (2015) (2).

If you prefer to plant your crops in the ground, however, it is definitely worth adding compost to them to aid their growth by enriching the soil and adding much-needed nutrients. One of the most fulfilling (and cheapest!) ways to do this is to make the compost yourself. Below I will share some tips on how to create top-quality compost in an easy way.

GREEN AND BROWN

Probably the most important thing to remember when you are making compost is getting the proportion of materials right so that the decomposition will happen in a way which keeps the nutrients alive. Usually this is spoken of as the relation of “green” to “brown” materials; green being anything fresh with a generally higher balance of nitrogen, such as freshly cut plants and grass, and brown being dry, more carbon-rich materials such as straw, sawdust and ash. To get rich compost you need around a 50:50 ratio of brown: green. This is by necessity a rough guide as you are not expected to be closely measuring the materials as you add them, but is useful to remember. For more detailed suggestions on the exact ratios of carbon to nitrogen and how much of each material is present in many commonly-found materials, try checking out (3) and (4).

One thing that is worth getting hold of if you can is some manure, which is very high in nitrogen and so can be added in small quantities as the kind of ‘spice’ of the compost recipe.

HOT AND COLD

There are two main techniques for making home-made compost. Cold compost means gathering the materials together in a pile and leaving them to decompose naturally at their own rate. For this technique you still need to get the ratio of “green” to “brown” to be about even but there is less work involved as once you have mixed the materials together you simply need to leave it to its own devices. This technique is useful for a small kitchen compost pile which you can add kitchen waste to on a daily basis, balancing it out with carbon-rich “brown” to keep the ratio healthy. A slightly more complicated method is that of hot compost, which I will concentrate on in this article.

THE BERKELEY METHOD

The style of hot composting with which I am most familiar is known as the Berkeley Method as it was apparently first developed at the University of California in Berkeley (3). There are a number of reasons why you may want to utilise this method instead of cold composting:

– It is much quicker than cold composting so you can use your compost more immediately
– The high temperatures produced by the decomposition kill any unwanted seeds which may be present, so the compost is safe to use on your garden
– If you want to get really technical and “multiple functions for each element”, you could use it as part of a water-heating system (see for example 5)

Some things to consider about this style of hot composting:

– It uses a lot of material right at the beginning so you need to have access to a large amount of organic matter all at once
– It also uses a fair amount of space – 1m x 1m x 1m is the usual recommended minimum – so is maybe not that practical if you are just planting up your back garden

Having taken these factors into consideration, if you feel the Berkeley Method is for you then read on!

HOW IT WORKS

The idea of hot compost is that you collect enough green and brown material (in the correct ratio) together that when you pile it up in a heap which you then aerate by turning it creates really great conditions for speedy decomposition to happen. This is due mainly to the presence of aerobic bacteria, which are the fastest digesters of organic matter (6). They are the reason for the need to create the right balance of carbon to nitrogen, and they also need a significant amount of oxygen to survive, which is why hot compost is turned to aerate it. The Berkeley Method has developed an exact time period when it’s best to do your aerating, which culminates in finished compost in just 18 days.

YOU WILL NEED:

– A space to put the pile which is over 2m x 2m
– A mix of green and brown materials
– Lots of water ready to hand (if you have a hose that will reach the pile this is probably easiest)
– Tarpaulin or other material to cover the pile when you leave it to rot

TOOLS:

– Pitchfork
– Shovel
– Wheelbarrow

STEP 1: GATHER MATERIALS AND CHOOSE SPACE

As with any task which involves creating something, the first step is to source what you will use and choose where you will place it. As mentioned, the hot compost pile you are creating needs to be at least 1m x 1m x 1m square, and you will be turning the compost so ideally you need enough space for 2 compost piles, plus manoeuvring space to give you the chance to turn it. It can be bigger, but you will probably want to keep it in a cube-like shape when first creating it (though the sides will inevitably slip down as the decomposition takes hold) so bear this in mind when siting the pile.

Next you need to find what you will put in the hot compost pile. In order to maximise efficiency, it is probably best to start your pile immediately after doing some kind of big weeding/grass cutting/pruning/woodwork/fire making/all of the above; as all of these activities create by-products which are perfect materials to make compost with. Gather all of the materials together next to where you will place the pile so that it is easy to pile them on top of each other. Remember that very roughly, you want about a 50:50 mix of green (e.g. fresh plant matter and especially nutrient-rich plants such as clover, nettles, comfrey, alfalfa) to brown (e.g. sawdust, ash, straw, and dry plant matter). The other essential thing you will be adding is water, and lots of it, so if your pile is within reach of your garden hose this will make creating the compost a lot easier than if you have to bring water in from afar.

Beginning the layering. Photo by David Ashwanden
Beginning the layering. Photo by David Ashwanden

STEP 2: MIX INGREDIENTS

Using the pitchfork and/or shovel, begin layering up your ingredients in the space you have chosen. Just start piling them on top of each other, a few pitchfork-fulls at a time – going from the ‘brown’ material to the ‘green’, to ensure an even mix. You can also add the manure ‘spice’ every few layers.

The manure spice. Photo by David Ashwanden
The manure spice. Photo by David Ashwanden

Once your pile is big enough you can begin to shape it. The most optimum shape is as close to a cube as you can manage; the corners ensure that the pile can stay relatively intact as the decomposition takes hold. You can create the corners by taking your pitchfork, sticking it into the middle of the pile, and then moving it gently up and down as you pull back from the centre to the edge. Do this on all corners, anytime you see that the pile is beginning to slip.

Using the pitchfork to shape and aerate. Photo by Ashwanden
Using the pitchfork to shape and aerate. Photo by Ashwanden

Along with your plant-based materials, key ingredients are air and water. To aerate the compost pile, again use the pitchfork by sticking it into the pile at regular intervals to ensure there is some air flow needed.

As the pile grows, you need to be adding water every couple of layers, or every 4 inches (10cm) or so. When adding the water, pour it liberally onto the pile, ensuring everything gets saturated. The pile will soak up a lot of water before it begins running out of the bottom, but even when it does, you can still keep adding more as you pile up more dry ingredients.

STEP 3: COVER AND LEAVE

Once the pile is at least 1m tall, 1m wide and 1m long it is ready to leave. Douse the pile once more with water, and do some final shaping with the pitchfork to ensure the form is capable of optimum conditions. Then take the tarpaulin, and cover the compost pile. You may wat to weigh the tarpaulin down with rocks, tyres, bricks, pallets or other heavy items.

Now it is time for the first period of decomposition. This is four days. It is probably a good idea to note down the date when you will need to turn it. Then just leave the pile for the microbes to get on with their work.

STEP 4: THE TURNING

After 4 days have passed it’s time to turn the compost over. Before taking any action, you may wish to test the efficacy of your pile by sticking your hand into the centre, or (if for some reason you don’t feel like getting half-decomposed material all over your hand), poking a stick inside to make a hole. The hole should be steaming, or your hand should be hot. When you turn the pile over you will move all of the really hot central material to the edges so that the whole pile will become evenly rotten. It also allows for more aeration to add oxygen to the mix.

Visible Steam. Photo by David Ashwanden
Visible Steam. Photo by David Ashwanden

To turn the pile, take it apart from the top down, layer by layer in the opposite way from which you built it. A pitchfork is probably the handiest tool to do this with. Ensure that much of the thick, hot stuff gets moved outwards and the things which have not begun fully rotting yet go into the centre where they can get in on the heat action. Every few layers, add water again as previously. As with when first creating the pile, try to make the corners as accented as possible by wiggling the pitchfork from the centre to the edges.

The pile in its new place. Photo by Charlotte Haworth
The pile in its new place. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Once you have rebuilt the pile next to the place where it originally was, cover it with the tarpaulin again. The next times you have to turn the compost are every two days for fourteen days.

STEP 5: REST AND REPEAT

On day six, 2 days after the first turning, when you come to your compost pile the centre should be between 55 and 65 degrees Celsius. If it is too cool you will not see steam rising when you put your hand inside and if it is too hot it may develop a kind of white mould (3). You may wish to use a thermometer to check the temperature. If it is too hot, make sure you move all of the central material to edges and the edge material to the centre, and aerate the entire pile with your pitchfork. The mould should disappear once the compost cools down enough.

Every time you turn the compost, follow the same guidelines as step 4. You need to turn the compost every 2 days after the first turning, so on day 6, day 8, day 10, day 12, day 14, day 16 and day 18.

STEP 6: ENJOY YOUR NEW COMPOST

After 18 days, when you come to turn the compost, you ideally want to be encountering rich, dark brown earth, with all the materials fully broken down. This compost is now ready to use. As with all compost, it may be a little strong to place directly onto seedlings and young plants, but is an ideal addition to potting mix or can be used on trees or in garden beds.
Creating healthy soil is one of the most basic and rewarding things we can do. As well as benefiting our plants and helping us to grow things for food and other uses, we are contributing to the wider ecosystem and helping the earth to regenerate. An enjoyable task indeed.

REFERENCES

1. Hemenway, 2009. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Chelsea green: New York
2. Christenson, 2015. Aquaculture: Introduction to Aquaculture for Small Farmers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: Seattle
3. Deep Green Permaculture, 2015. ‘Hot Composting – Composting in 18 Days’.http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/diy-instructions/hot-compost-composting-in-18-days/
4. Planet Natural, 2015. ‘Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios’. http://www.planetnatural.com/composting-101/c-n-ratio/
5. Wheaton, Paul, 2009. ‘500 showers heated from 1 small compost pile how-to tutorial’. Youtube Video
6. University of Illinois Extension: Composting for the Homeowner. ‘The Science of Compost’.http://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/science.cfm

2016-12-13T11:05:41+00:00 Blog, Top 10 Posts|25 Comments
  • Howard Jones

    hello.Just looked over info on composting.I love all the ideas.all will work great .for my self i use how to make soil bank by foodforestpermaculture.com a lot less work when using this method .video of how to make soil can be found on youtube .Love to all

  • Amit

    Very informative, thanks a lot!
    One question if I may. It’s not possible for me to collect that much material in one go but I can do it in about 2 month’ time, especially in spring. Is it possible to pile the stuff up, however long it takes, and start the turning process when the pile is big enough?

    • Nathalie Sequeira

      Hey Amit, make sure to collect the stuff separately – you can dry the greens so they don’t start decomposing beforehand, and you can innoculate the browns with a handful of fungus-rich material so they get a head start, since they grow more slowly than bacteria (which will be causing the heat in the pile through massive reproduction 😉 )
      Check out this video interview with Elaine Ingham on composting, where she also discusses storing material beforehand: https://youtu.be/fnXsw5EzuM8

      • Amit

        Thanks a lot!

      • paulstaylor

        If you want to make a couple of tons of compost for a community garden program see trustnature.com.au using 18ft (6M) of fencing for the stack this gives you a stack that ends with excellent compost. Collect ‘waste’ from multiple homes to make the compost then it can be shared back, this way we have 10 homes doing a single compost much easier and gives the community a chance to get together.

    • Yes no problem.

  • Babuji Janakarajan

    Great Post. Thanks for educating us. Can Coconut husk be used as brown material in forming the compost heap? I get abundant coconut husk as I am mainly a coconut grower and would love to know how to decompose them quickly for reusing in my farm.

    • Break them up or crush them to split them up increasing their surface area add equal volume of fresh green material and add equal volume of fresh manure, keep moist and turn.

      • Babuji Janakarajan

        Thanks. I shall try and post the results soon!

  • Howard Jones

    In nature leaves fall to the ground .twigs fall to the ground.birds poop.bears poop.bugs die.I think you get the idea.the layers that nature makes is what you must do.Keep it simple as nature is very simple .Oh be for i go i must tell you i went fishing caught fish .cleaned them and left the guts in the pathway soil bank .wow found some sea weed and left it in the pathway soil bank.my kitchen waste is left in pathway soilbank .went out for coffee and came home with alot of coffee grounds .my neighbor pooped in my in my path way soil bank. he does not eat gmo food .don t take meds .so this neighbor replaced the bear. Love to all Howard Jones

  • Mark Kopecky

    Great info, but the part about using ash is a little unclear. Just so there’s no mistake, ash is not a brown material. A little bit in the mix might be good, but there’s no organic matter to speak of in ash and it’s very caustic. It’s good stuff in it’s place, but I’d rather add ash to the soil separately, if it’s warranted.

    • Howard Jones

      drano is caustic don t brush your teeth with it but i do brush with baking soda .both are alkalizing.Bio char is a lot less caustic than wood ash but both are alkalizing.what happens when the forest burns.well wood ash is every where.then the soil is ready to grow just about any thing.so put wood ash in your pathway soil bank. wood ,earth,water air and fire the five elements means virgin organic.so yes wood ash is Organic.I believe you may have bio mass thinking as organic.when in fact arsnic is organic but i don t eat it in great amounts .you are correct if its warranted put wood ash in pathway soil bank .acid loving plants and trees dont like alkalline wood ash.so leave this out of the pathway soil bank when not needed.Love to all Howard Jones

      • Mark Kopecky

        Howard, I think I understand your points, and I don’t mean to disagree with the heart of your message. Even so, for the sake of people who may read this and not understand some of the terms, I would like to respectfully make a couple more clarifications.
        If I understand your comments correctly, you use the terms natural and organic interchangeably. This isn’t the way most people use these terms, and there are actually legal principles that come into play in some contexts of the term “organic.” From a purely chemistry perspective, an organic compound is practically anything that has a carbon atom in its makeup. That could include lots of things from limestone to most pesticides. But most people interested in farming or gardening use the term organic to refer to a method of farming that involves working with natural cycles and materials. “Organic matter” is another specific term that refers to substances that are, or are derived from, living plant or animal tissue.
        Arsenic is natural, but it’s not organic, and it’s not approved as a farming input.
        Wood ash is a wonderful product for soils in places like where I live, and it’s an acceptable soil amendment for organic farming methods, but it’s not organic matter, because all the carbon that was originally in the wood has left (in the smoke from the fire). Biochar is organic matter, and it’s another wonderful product, but it’s pretty much protected from decomposition by the effects of the charring process, so it won’t really decompose in the composting process. But it will provide other wonderful benefits, which should be the topic of another conversation. It seems to me that a little biochar would be a terrific thing to have in a compost pile.
        Thanks! Mark

        • Howard Jones

          Hello thank you for the intel.Very informative .I agree with your wording.I should of put some things Differently mark .Arsenic compounds containing carbon .They are mainly found in sea living organisms .Althought some of these compounds have allso been found in species living on land .Organic arsenic compounds. Source Green facts .Mark you are correct .Again thank you .On to the wood ash .The last time i cleaned out the wood stove ,lots of carbon was left in the wood ash .I should get a better burning stove .love to all

          • Mark Kopecky

            Thanks for the followup Howard. I learned something again today–thanks for telling us about the arsenic in the sea organisms. What an amazing creation we live in!
            Even if your stove isn’t as efficient as it might be, it sounds like you’re getting a two-fer when you clean it out: ash and char! (Who says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?)
            All the best, Mark

  • Damian

    I would definitely not use the hot composting Berkely technique as described problems being if you turn the compost heap every two days you don’t give any time for the beneficial fungi to develop also beneficial Nematodes who also need a stable environment and will vacate the compost pile pretty quickly and if you are not monitoring temperatures and you go over 65° this will create an environment that allows facultive anaerobes and allows the colonisation of the pile with anaerobic bacteria this anaerobic bacteria stops the growth of beneficial fungi and creates a toxic environment for worms and beneficial nematodes, root feeding Nematodes live in Anerobic conditions and so do root feeding fungi and very dangerous bacteria, The whole compost pile needs to be maintained at 55 to 65°C only way to achive this is to monitor it with a purpose built thermometer the pile must be turned if the pile gets hotter than 65°And if that happens it should be diluted with carbon e.g. woodchips cardboard, The only way to achieve a hot compost is to get the carbons (brown), green and high nitrogen ratio correct, things like coffee grounds are high nitrogen because they are picked green so anything that the green and dried down potentially has a high nitrogen content and can send the temperature of your compost pile through the roof, so a slow compost is probably much more beneficial as all the plants that you would want to grow need a broad range of beneficial fungi and bacteria, you can get away with growing brassicas very successfully in a iffy compost

    • That is exactly what we do Damian and we check with a microscope our quality.

    • Yes we do all that get a great product which we check in the microscope.

    • paulstaylor

      Geoff is very skilled at making a very good Berkley compost and it serves him well, we can open a new discussion here, it is the high diversity of microbes in our productive system that we are looking for, Geoff has achieved this by using his very good Berkley compost coupled with an extremely high diversity of plants in his system. Plant diversity with Berkley compost really works because a diversity of plants ensures a diversity of microbes. I like a slower compost TrustNatures BioVital compost because I am usually working with highly degraded land and we need to use the slower compost to grow the massive diversity of microbes to kick start degraded soils. Have a look at trustnature.com.au website and see some of the soil regeneration we are doing at Christmas Island regenerating an old mining lease to a productive organic farm, the first farm ever on the island. tx paul taylor

      • Damian

        Hi Paul, sorry Ive been away so only just saw your reply, wow what a great site you have and like Geoff are doing some amazing work, as you say Geoff has a great diversity of plants so probably already has a great resourse of fungi in the soil, my comment was mainly about not been able to add beneficial fungi into the soil if the compost is regularly disturbed as the fungi won’t grow and the nematodes (predatory, fungal and bacteria feeding) will leave the pile, Im sure you guys are making great aerobic compost but if your are constantly adding Bacterial dominated compost to the soil you will end up with bacterial dominated soils, Im not saying that will happen tomorrow, but the environment will end up favouring earlier and earlier successional systems, like if you are doing a lot of regen you would probably need to start with early successional biology as it would probably be hard to get old growth forest trees to get truly established in systems that have no support, e.g. grass lands are bacterial dominated soils, grasslands over time would leave enough carbon in the soils ( if not burnt) for fungi to grow which would allow more woody species to grow and over a ver long time you would end up with a old growth forest with 300/500:1 C:N, my understanding is that if you provide a complete range of biology, the plants will feed which every organism they need with exudates that will supply them with the nutrients they need, chop and drop would do this nicely but if people don’t understand why its important they might miss this important step and just keep adding bacterial dominated soils with a big part of the system missing which could led to a better environment for parasitic nematodes and parasitic fungi to exist

  • Dana Mccarthy
  • paulstaylor

    Hi: on composting, we have the berkley method which is great for making organic fertiliser and adding organic matter and many other things, pretty quick and pretty simple. Then we have a longer process for making compost as shown by trustnature.com.au for making compost that is rich in high diversity of microbes that reconstruct degraded soils and is essential for restoring ‘nutrient cycling’ Notes: 1 Just because composting seems pretty simple is still takes a bit of practice so please persist, often it takes 3 or 4 good tries to get a good final product. 2. a compost pile is a living organism, it needs to be tended, fed and watered just like any other living organism. 3. ‘Green and Brown’ often materials are a mix of both, ‘green is any plant material that is harvested before it forms and drops its seed. Dry hay looks ‘brown’ but is actually ‘green’. Straw has formed and matured its seed so its ‘brown’. Leaves that are harvested green are green but leaves that drop off the tree because of drought or season are ‘brown’. see trustnature.com.au or just come to my soils and organic fertiliser course at Geoffs in August. tx paul taylor

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