Once you learn about the wonderful world that is compost, regular soil will never again be good enough for you...

What is Compost?  Isn't it just garbage?

Kind of.  Compost is a mixture of decaying organic matter, water and soil that is used to improve soil structure and supply the nutrients that plants need to grow.

Think of it as “concentrated nature”…

In order to make healthy soil that allows plants, trees and grasses to thrive, nature has come up with a complicated and perfect cycle. When plants and animals die, they, along with their excrement, are slowly decomposed by a combination of microorganisms, oxygen, water and heat. The smaller and smaller the decomposed plants, animals and animal waste (i.e. manure) become, the more they blend with the earth beneath them.

Once the plants, animals, animal waste and grasses have completely decomposed into the soil, they actually become the soil. The ground where the dead plants, animals and excrement once lay is now rich in organic matter, and any plant, grass or tree that sprouts on that spot will be able to use the healthier, more nutrient-rich soil to grow into an even stronger plant, tree or grass.

Composting simply speeds up this process to create the “perfect soil” for growing anything, also known as “garden gold”.

Why is Compost Important for my Garden?

By creating conditions that closely mirror the natural cycle, gardeners can create nutrient-rich soil relatively quickly that is superior to “regular” soil in many ways, including:
  • More stable soil pH
  • Better able to retain water
  • Encourages colonization of “good” organisms by being a better source of food and by being more easily aerated
The end result for the gardener is a crop that is more nutrient-rich, has a better ability to fight off pests and disease and is healthier to eat.  The process of creating compost can take one of two paths: the hot pile path or the cold pile path.

Hot vs. Cold Piles, What's the Difference? 

There are two types of composting piles: hot piles and cold piles. Hot piles get their name from being… well… hotter than cold piles. 140° to 160°F (60° to 71°C) to be exact compared to the cold pile which ranges from 70° to 90°F (21° to 32°C).
Before we dive further into their differences, let’s discuss their similarities. Both hot and cold compost piles require…
  • Nitrogen-rich or “green” ingredients such as kitchen scraps, grass clippings, or even weeds.
  • Carbon-rich or “brown” ingredients such as straw, hay or leaves that have been chopped down to no more than 2 inches (5.1 cm) in length.
  • Soil or compost – your pile of compost is nothing without the organisms that will break it down. Since the organisms live in soil or compost, you’ll need to add some to your piles to get the decomposition started.
  • Air – There are good and bad organisms that can feed off of your pile… the good ones need oxygen and the bad ones don’t. The right amount of oxygen can be infused in several ways, including adding a layer of un-chopped straw to the bottom of your pile, turning the piles periodically or adding ventilation to larger piles. Any ingredients that can easily stick together and keep out air (such as leaves) should only be added to your piles in thin layers.
  • Water – The good composting organisms also need the right amount of water to do their job… moist but not soggy. An often-used analogy is this: your compost should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If you squeeze your compost and a few drops of water come out, that’s good. If you squeeze it and water streams down your hand, you’ve added too much (this can be remedied by adding more dry browns).
  • Protection from the elements – To prevent over-watering by rain or the scattering of your piles by wind or animals, you’ll need to protect your piles. Composting bins, enclosures, tarps and plastic sheets are most commonly used.
  • Avoiding the wrong ingredients – the wrong ingredients could add disease or other harmful ingredients to your compost and therefore to your crops. Keep the following OUT of your composting piles:
    • Ashes (other than burned plants)
    • Dairy products
    • Diseased plants
    • Dog or cat manure
    • Lawn clippings from yards treated with chemicals
    • Manure from feedlots
    • Meat products
    • Roots of weeds (weeds above the roots are okay)
    • Weeds that have “gone to seed” (when plants produce seeds after flowering)
Now let’s get back to the differences…

In order to get up to the higher temperatures, hot compost piles must be built all at once rather than gradually over time. One of the upsides to the harder work involved when creating hot piles is the speed at which your compost will be ready. While cold pile composting usually takes at least a year to be ready for garden use, hot piles can be ready in as soon as two or three months.

Hot piles are also much better at killing weed seeds, something that a cold pile does not do. In addition, hot piles do a much better job at killing any disease-causing organisms than cold piles.  But don’t let these positives keep you from starting a cold pile which has one big benefit over its warmer brother: a waste-reducing outlet for your kitchen scraps and yard waste that still yields healthy, nutrient-rich compost.

Here's a side by side comparison to make things simpler:

 Recommended Equipment

The hardest part of making compost is done for you by the organisms living in and breaking down your compost ingredients. These tools will help them do their job the most efficiently and productively:
  1. Compost bins for hot piles should be at least 3 X 3 X 3 ft.  If they’re 4 ft. (1.2 m) or larger on the sides they should have ventilation slats. Cold pile compost bins should fit your lifestyle – the fewer greens you’ll have, the smaller the bin can be.
    • In regard to bin size, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, none of which are necessarily better than others. Just be sure that it’s sturdy (all that compost will eventually be compacted into soil, so ask yourself: could this thing keep its integrity if it were full of soil?). Beyond sturdiness, choose one based on your aesthetic tastes and your desired features (ventilation for bigger piles, easy-entry feature for turning and fluffing, etc.).
  2. Watering hose or can for keeping your piles moist.
  3. Chopping tool to break down the ingredients for easier composting, such as a lawn mower (easiest, especially if it has an attached bag for the clippings), garden shears, a machete or a shredder. Remember, the more finely your ingredients are chopped, the more quickly they will compost…but don’t forget to layer, turn and/or ventilate your pile to keep the bad organisms out!
  4. Pitchfork or manure fork for turning and fluffing.
  5. Compost thermometer so you know when your pile is ready to be turned, when any problems arise and when your compost is ready. Choose a thermometer with a longer probe that allows you to reach deeper into the pile.
Depending on the type of piles you have, you may also need the following:
  1. Activators jump-start your compost by adding the right amount of microorganisms for perfect composting. They should be used if you lack healthy soil or compost to add to your piles.
  2. Nylon tarp or black plastic for “open air” composting to reduce evaporation and keep rain out. If you use a plastic tarp, go with heat-absorbing black rather than heat-repelling white which could cool your pile below the desirable range.

Potential Composting Problems, What Could Go Wrong?

Good compost doesn’t always arrive without its share of difficulties along the way. Assuming you followed all of our advice above (pile is protected from the elements, right pile size, right ratio of browns to greens, right amount of soil, compost or activator, ingredients broken down into small pieces), there are still some things that can go wrong.  Here’s what to look out for and how to address each problem:
  • The temperature is not right – it either needs more moisture (add water) or more air (turn and fluff, bringing inside material to the outside). If the temperature drops steadily and the pile has the right amount of air and water, your compost may be done!
  • It smells bad – your pile shouldn’t smell bad while it’s decomposing, only for a few days after kitchen scraps are added. If it starts emitting a rank odor, you need to make some adjustments:
    • It's too wet (again, wetter than a wrung-out sponge) – add dry browns
    • It needs air – turn pile inside-out and fluff
    • It smells like ammonia – add browns, turn pile inside-out and fluff
    • Be sure you’ve got a healthy proportion of browns to greens (ratio of between 8 to 1 and 5 to 1)
Bottom Line:

Long story short, finished compost from both hot and cold piles will be extremely beneficial for your garden… there is no safer, healthier or cheaper way to get your garden to thrive. Whichever pile you choose, you’ll be happy with the outcome.

If you’re new to composting and aren’t in the mood to over-achieve, start making your own compost with a cold pile - also known as "easy composting" - and supplement your needs with pre-made compost.  Graduate to hot pile composting when you feel ready.

In your garden journal, write if you decided to use store bough compost, or if you made your own. 
  • Did you use the hot pile method, or the cold pile method? 
  • What kinds of things did you add to your compost pile? 
  • Did you use an activator? 
  • Take some before and after pictures of the things you put into your compost pile and later, add some pictures of the final product.

Journal Ideas!

  • Are you planning on using compost in your garden?
  • Are you going to make it or buy it?
  • What brand did you purchase?
  • Are you using a hot pile or cold pile?
  • Do you have a compost bin?
  • Did you make it or buy it?
  • What material(s) is it made out of?


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