Monday, June 25, 2012

How to Make Cold Compost

Making your own compost is a great way to add vital nutrients to your garden organically. It’s pretty easy to do in your own backyard using the right ingredients and techniques.

The wonderful folks from Rodale, a publisher of many organic gardening books, summed up the 4 components you need to create compost pretty well so I’ll repeat it here: “Air + Water + Carbon + Nitrogen = Compost,” and guess what, it’s pretty easy to create in your own backyard.

Choose a Spot for Your Compost Pile

First, pick a spot for your compost pile. If you have lots of space this shouldn’t be a problem. I live in the woods so I have mine at the edge of the lawn where the tree line begins. It’s out of the way, but still in a convenient spot.

If you have limited space or neighbors in close proximity, pick a spot where your compost pile won’t bother you or your neighbors. For those with limited space, you may want to buy a tumbler or small compost bin to keep your neighbors happy. These look good in the yard and lock odor.

Working with the 4 Components: Air, Water, Carbon & Nitrogen


Your compost pile needs air circulating in and around it. To tell if your compost is getting enough air, look at its density. Are the ingredients fluffy or compacted? A fluffy pile is porous, meaning it has air circulating through it. A compacted pile does not. Do your compost pile a favor and turn its contents when you notice they’re starting to compact. I turn mine about once a month using a pitch fork.


Water is an essential part of composting. To help your compost pile breakdown at a steady pace, keep it damp. If its constantly sopping wet it will start to smell, slow air circulation and drop in temperature. A pile that’s too dry will breakdown slowly due to a lack of heat.


Microbes are responsible for breaking down a compost pile and carbon is responsible for feeding them. Feeding your compost carbon-rich ingredients provides microbes with much needed energy. Carbon is found in organic matter such as fallen leaves, straw and corn stalks.


Much like microbes need carbon, they also need nitrogen to feed on. Nitrogen is full of proteins which help microbes to grow and then breakdown compost. Nitrogen can be found in matter such as fresh grass clippings and leaves.

Creating your Compost Pile with Ingredients

I put together a list of good and bad compost ingredients that you can look over so you know what to put in your pile. When adding ingredients, it’s best to keep a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. This really isn’t as hard as it sounds. Organic Gardening suggests adding 1 part carbon-rich ingredients such as grass clippings to 2 parts nitrogen-rich ingredients such as dead leaves to get the right ratio.

This ratio helps your compost breakdown faster. If you don’t hit the ratio your pile will still breakdown, it’ll just take a little longer. The folks at Organic Gardening say that compost piles with too much nitrogen can start to smell and those with too much carbon take longer to decompose.

Carbon-rich ingredients are often called “brown” ingredients. This is because they’re dry ingredients as opposed to fresh. Brown garden debris, hedge prunings and twigs, leaves, pine needles and straw all contain carbon when brown or yellowed due to dryness.

Nitrogen-rich ingredients are called “green” ingredients. Green ingredients are still moist and fresher than those that are brown. These include aquarium water, algae and plants from fresh water tanks, chicken manure, dead houseplants, fresh grass clippings, green garden debris and horse manure.

Tending the Compost Pile

Compost is decomposed organic matter so you’ll want to add ingredients that breakdown. The faster they breakdown, the faster you’ll get compost. Toss your ingredients into your pile to get it started. Don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of ingredients at first, they can be added continuously over time.

Keep adding your ingredients as they become available, remembering to keep the carbon/nitrogen ratio in check. Once you have a good-sized pile, allow it to decompose and turn itself into compost. If need be, hose the pile down once in a while to keep it moist. Give the compost pile a good toss if starts to compact.

When enough of your compost pile has decomposed to spread in your garden, scoop out the dark, fine material leaving behind the ingredients that haven’t decomposed yet. At that time, start your new pile.

By mid summer I usually I have a second pile going. I add to this pile well into fall and during the winter. When spring rolls around and I have green ingredients once again, I begin adding those to my pile to balance out the brown ingredients and the cycle begins again.

Making your own compost is pretty easy. As long as the ingredients you add are decomposable and are free of toxins and other chemicals, you’re on the right track.

Reference: Organic Gardening (2007). Make Compost in 14 Days. Rodale Inc.

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