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What is backyard compost?  How does it work?

Compost:  What is it?

Here's the Scientific Techno-Speak answer:  Compost is the finished product produced from the controlledc decomposition of organic matter.

Would you prefer a different answer?  Here's the EZ Answer:  Compost is rich, organic stuff that is broken down over time and looks a lot like dirt.  At one time, it was rotten fruits, veggies, plants or paper products.  Finished compost should be a nice dark color, crumbly and have a pleasant earthy smell.  Compost not only looks like soil, but is an important ingredient that makes soil productive and healthy.  It's the plant food of nature and good stuff!

How does compost work?

Compost happens through both chemical and organic breakdown.  Tiny micro-organisms in the soil feed on moist organic waste.  The pile begins to decay, raising the temperature of the soil and killing harmful bateria.  As the compost receives oxygen, moisture, fresh nitrogen and carbon sources (greens and browns), it continues to break down.  Finally, the pile cools and the high temperatures stabilize.  Compost "critters" like composting worms and beetles continue to break down the material. 

Two types of composting piles:

Active and Passive.  Active piles are turned with a pitchfork, turning fork or rake.  Turning the pile introduces oxygen to the pile.  Passive piles are not turned.  Material is placed on the pile in a deliberate manner, leading to a more controlled decomposition.  I call the passive method hack and stack.

The five important factors for compost and their ideal:

1.  Aeration (oxygen into the pile).  If you have an active pile, turning it at least once a week to introduce oxygen to the core of the compost pile.  If you have a passive pile, make sure there is ample air supply around all sides, top and bottom of the pile.  You might even consider putting chunky sticks at the bottom to allow air to circulate all the way around the pile.

2.  Moisture.  The ideal compost pile material should have the consistency of a wrung out sponge.  You may need to water your compost in hot and/or dry climates.  I suggest keeping compost on the open ground, allowing drainage.  You may consider covering compost in heavy rain, but I don't do it myself... and I live in the rainiest city in the United States--Hilo!

3.  Volume.  As the material in your compost pile mixes together, heat will be released.  This heat assists in the breakdown process.  To help insulate the heat without making it too huge, the recommended ideal for a compost pile is 3'X3'X3'.  If you have more material for compost, I recommend that you start a 2nd compost pile.

4.  Particle size. Imagine if you will, a long thick palm frond.  If you put the whole thing into your compost pile, it will take a very long time to break down.  The ideal size in your compost pile should be 1-2" long.  Variation in sizes works well, so don't get too crazy.  If you don't mind the wait, go ahead and throw the palm onto your pile.  If you'd like to harvest nice compost in a shorter amount of time, consider chopping larger items into smaller sizes.

5.  C:N ratio. This is most often listed as N:C, but I list it the other way to reinforce carbon at the end.  N refers to "green materials" in a compost: rotten bananas, wilted lettuce, fresh grass clippings, etc.  C refers to carbon based items.  Both nitrogen and carbon are important to the composting process!  It is best, especially in hot, humid, tropical locations to always end your compost pile with a layer of brown material.  When ever you add a green, add a brown (in the same volume) on the top.  This practice will help reduce any airborn pests (flies, etc.) and will ensure you have adequate carbon.  A good source here in Hawaii is shredded office paper, newspaper (printed with soy ink) and boxboard (cereal boxes, 12-pack soda packs, etc.).  You could also use dried leaves, straw or grass.  Just make sure it's totally dry.

More questions?  Contact the Master Composter below.  Piper would be happy to answer any questions or concerns.   


Make Earth Day Every Day... Compost!
Composting is an environmentally friendly practice. The process produces a rich, nutrient-rich fertilizer for plants, keeping valuable green waste out of our landfills, sewers and septic systems.  Composting is good for our planet, as well as our bodies, minds, and spirits!

Specific question or concern?  Contact  "The Worm Lady."  Piper Selden, owner and operator of Hawaii Rainbow Worms is happy to answer your worm and/or backyard composting questions.

Email Piper
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