Home composting relies upon one of the simplest axioms of nature: Things of the forest live by eating from the forest, and at their end, they are eaten by the forest.
In some ways, the forest floor acts as a stomach. It breaks down dead plant matter and debris to make
nutrients available to living plants as well as adding fiber and other organic materials to the soil. In an untended forest, leaves and other plant materials fall to the ground and decompose. Once decomposition is complete what is left behind is a layer of compost and humus.
One shortcoming to this hands-off method is that it can take a long time. A tree that falls to the forest floor will eventually decompose, but it may take decades to do so. In nature, if the moisture, nitrogen to carbon ratio, or pile size is less than ideal, it will simply take longer, or if on the other end of the spectrum, it will stink.
The process can be both neater and faster with some human intervention and by the use of a home composting pile.
At its most basic, the pile can just be a collection of the leaves and such to be composted. This is known as a “cold” compost pile, and depending on what’s in it, in anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, it will become compost. Nature will do all the work if given enough time and an occasional rain.
One simple form of composting involves placing the leaves, stems, and roots from a fall harvest in a pile for the winter, and then digging out the compost that develops in the spring.
Ideally, compost piles should be about one stride wide and tall but can be as long as needed. Shipping pallets can be used to form 3 sides of a neat compost pile.
If too much “brown” material is added, decomposition slows and the process takes longer. If too much “green” material is added, the pile can start to smell.
Have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of greater than 30 to 1. Leaves, newspaper, cardboard, sawdust, straw, anything tree or sugar related is usually a “brown”. If too much brown material is added, composting will slow, but browns help with structure and odor control. If the compost pile starts to smell, add more browns and stir the pile.
Generally have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of less than 30 to 1. Grass clippings, vegetable or fruit food scraps, green leafy material are all “greens”. These will decompose quickly if left in a pile without brown materials but will stink in the process.
To speed up the composting of browns, and to keep the greens from stinking, use approximately equal amounts of each (by average volume), and mix well. Smaller pieces compost faster than large pieces do, in part because of the increase in surface area for the bacteria and fungi to work on. This is one reason why even though a log and sawdust are made from the same material, sawdust can be composted in weeks, and a decomposing log can take decades.
The compost pile needs air and moisture as well. Stir the compost pile occasionally, and the pile should be kept damp, but not wet.
If the mix, moisture, and air are correct, the compost pile will start to literally heat up and become a “hot” compost pile. Hot composting is faster, and seeds and some pathogens are killed from the heat generated.
Regardless if from a hot or cold compost pile; once the compost is ready, it should be dark, and earthy smelling. To remove any remaining debris the compost can be run through a piece of grating.
Making compost is not difficult, nature does it all the time. By helping the process along by using a properly aerated and moist mix of the proper proportions, compost can be made at home and used for home gardening needs.