Notes from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting

Just finished reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting on my iPad.  So I remember the details here are some notes.

The central theme of the book is don’t over think composting.  You don’t have to measure the pH level, or calculate your precise nitrogen to carbon ratio.  Mother nature will compost naturally, no matter how badly you screw up.  Comforting.

The three ingredients for good compost are carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.  You get the oxygen from turning the compost occasionally.  Micro-organisms come from the ground underneath your compost, and are the workhorse of the process.  They are mostly kinds of good bacteria.  But worms and other macro-organisms are also really helpful.

Carbon to nitrogen ratio should be 30:1 in your compost.  As a point of reference, cut grass is 20:1, fruit waste is 35:1, wood chips are 400:1.  But basically, you should just strive for 50:50 brown to green.  Half carbon based, half nitrogen based.

I have plenty of green due to grass clippings from our soccer pitch of a back yard.  But I don’t have any trees on my property, so I don’t get as many leaves.  Both my neighbors have huge trees, and I get plenty of leaves from those in autumn, but other than that not too much. So I was concerned that carbon would be an issue for me.  However now I know that I can use newspaper or any kind of shredded paper in my compost.  We have a shredder, and I’ve started emptying it into the compost.

The end product of a compost is called humus.  It’s brown and has a loamy consistency that crumbles in your hands.  It’s chock full of organic matter that plants love.  This book calls it black gold.

You shouldn’t put meat or dairy products in your compost (duh), and as far as animal waste, herbivores only.  Bunny poop is apparently pretty badass, worms really love it.  Also it’s not considered a “hot” manure, so you can even just put it straight in your garden without breaking it down first.

You can put weeds in your compost, but you have to make sure they haven’t gone to seed first.  It’s safer to put them in a hot compost (more on that below), definitely do not put them in a cold compost.

Woody plants like tree limbs can be put straight into the compost if they are less than the diameter of a pencil, otherwise you need to break them down.  I’m thinking of getting a used wood chipper to do this.  I asked about woodchippers at my local hardware store, and the store clerk gave me a spooky silent shake of the head to say no.  Has the movie Fargo just permanently ruined wood chipper for the state of Minnesota?

There are three types of composting piles: hot, cold, and warm.  Hot piles can produce black gold in as little as 3-4 weeks, though usually more like six to eight weeks.  They range in temperature from 113F to 160F.  Cold piles take more like nine months, and are 90F or below.  They require less turning, and are lower maintenance.  Hot piles require more turning (like twice a week), and you need to tune the carbon to nitogen ratio a little more precisely.

The middle ground between the two is a warm compost, maybe turn it once a week, and think about the CN ratio, but don’t freak out about it.

One really cool idea I’m going to try is a compost sandwich.  You setup your raised bed, and you put down a layer of wet cardboard, covering the whole thing.  Should be 1-2″ thick.  Then you put down a layer of nitrogen rich material, then back to newspaper and leaves, then back to nitrogen, and also mix some rabbit manure too, until you have a a foot or two of compost.  You can then cover it with topsoil.

I’m going to try this in September or October when leaves begin to fall.  Will build my raised beds up before then perhaps, thinking out of cinder blocks.  Then rake my lawn for the leaves, and then plunder curb side recycling pickups for any extra leaves or cardboard I might need.  By spring planting, I should have a really awesome humus under neath my top soil.

Another cool thing I learned about is compost tea.  Once your compost is done, you take a burlap sack or cheese cloth and fill it with compost.  You then dunk it in a four gallon container of water, and let it steep for a day.  The resulting compost tea can be sprayed over your garden or lawn as a high nutrient fertilizer.

The book gives a couple methods of creating containers for your pile, including using picket fences, wire mesh, and discusses commercial containers.  It mostly dismisses the latter, except for a place to put your kitchen scraps.  That way, animals can’t get to them.  I’m doing a pile in the the far corner of my backyard, and am taking a chance and putting kitchen scraps in there.  So far I haven’t seen much animal activity, and I have been making sure to cover the veggies and coffee grounds after putting them in.  I will adjust if necessary.

The author also discusses worm composting, goes into detail on natural mulches, and a few other items.  I might cover these in a later blog post, but what’s exciting me most right now are these composting basics.

4 Responses to “Notes from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting”

  1. Hirendra Says:

    (Back to Basics Growing) (Paperback) If you think you want to start composting, but feel owvrehelmed and don’t know where to start, this book is for you. This book is also for you if you already compost, but you’re wondering if you’re doing it right, or if there is anything else you should be doing. I fall into the second group. I grew up in a household where we composted, and I’ve always composted since I’ve had my own house. But I’m a rather lazy composter, and for the most part I just dump my fruit and vegetable scraps and yard waste into the bins. Every year or so I dig out what I’ve made, and I have to admit I find it rather mesmerizing to dig through the pile. With Kelly Smith’s help, I’ve learned why some of my composting techniques didn’t work so well and others turned out great. And I now know that I have to give the pile a big stir every now and again. I also really enjoyed the information on worms. Lots of clear information, step-by-step guides for those starting out, and an extensive trouble-shooting section. The book has both a very helpful table of contents and an index. This would make a great housewarming gift for a first-time home buyer.

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