Composting is one of nature's most spectacular and most essential processes. Without it, life would be very different, and probably not possible. It is fueled by anything and everything organic, from paper to shit, and even ourselves. Everything that has ever lived or will live is a product and source of compost. It is a never ending cycle that can be very advantageous to the self-sustainable homestead.
Composting in this article is aerobic composting. Anaerobic composting is discussed in the methane page. Both are essentially the same overall process, but involve different bacteria and methods.
Aerobic composting is composting that is processed in the presence of oxygen. It also needs moisture, organic content, and organisms to process the organic matter. Some people and books would have you believe that composting is difficult or needs special equipment. This is simply not true, and it will happen whether you are there or not. What is sometimes difficult for the beginner is producing usable compost, although with a little guidance, you can be a compost pro in no time.
Making a Compost Pile
The easiest way to compost is the pile method. There are many different methods for composting, using bins or containers, piles, windrows, aerators, and much more. We will be focusing on the methods we use, which involve simple bins at times, piles most of the times. Personally, we believe compost should be as simple as possible, and as quick as you can make it without adding much labor.
First, you need a place. Near the garden is best, if you plan to use it in the garden. We actually put ours (we have a separate composting process for humanure) right on a garden bed. So, when it rains, and leeches nutrients, they go right into the garden. Once the compost is done, we can plant in that spot, and we move spots every time we make a pile. We try and do it so there will be compost at the onset of each growing season, spring, summer and fall. You can never have too much compost anyway, so put as much material as you can get your hands on!
We use two types of organic matter, brown and green. The brown is cardboard, paper, straw, dry leaves, and anything that is dry and brittle. The green is manure, vegetable wastes, fresh grass cuttings, weeds, and anything that is fresh and moist. This mixture has to do with the carbon and nitrogen ratios, but because you can't measure them at home (or shouldn't), I won't go into that. Instead, we use brown and green. The finer the material, the faster it will break down. But I wouldn't spend too much energy cutting things up into small pieces. Everything will break down eventually, anyway.
First, we find the most course brown material and make a layer about 5ft wide by 7ft long and about 6-10 inches thick. This will most likely be weeds or thick straw. Then, we put a layer of green material, maybe 1-2 inches thick. Then, another layer of brown, but this time, only 2-4 inches thick. We layer up green and brown like this until it is at least 3 ft tall. If you don't have enough material to make it to 3 ft, make the pile smaller. You want the ratio about 2 to 1 brown to green.
When we add material in a layer, we add around the edges first, and spiral towards the center. This keeps the pile falling inwards, and I am told, this is what is called a “stack”. We also add water to every layer, especially to the brown, and gray water is great for this. You don't want it sloppy wet, more like “moist”.
Then, you just wait. We add some water every now and then, mostly from the sink or when we clean an animal water trough. Waste water is actually great because it adds more nutrients. Now, you could also add earthworms at the bottom, if you want to. After about a month, we turn the pile. This is not necessary, especially in the wet season, but it is nice to see how things are doing. Basically, when turning the pile, you want everything that was on the outside edge on the center of the new pile. You won't be able to keep it in layers as before, so just do your best to get everything over to the new location. You'll notice it has shrunk a bit since the initial construction of the pile.
We turn it once more, about a month after the first turn. At this stage, it is pretty much done, but we let it sit there and “brew” for another month or so before using it. So, there you have it, not much to it. If everything doesn't break down, throw the leftovers into a new pile or just put them on the soil anyway. They'll break down there as well.
Compost adds soil fertility, which in turn, adds plants to the ecosystem. With more plants, we have less CO2 in the atmosphere. Compost is like high energy food for plants. They love it, and will show their appreciation by growing big, strong and beautiful.