BackyardComposting

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Traditional Composting


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There are a number of different ways to approach compost making ad home and modern methods are evolving rapidly.   In heaps, piles, bins, underground or on top of the soil, today’s composting methods significantly contribute to increasing soil fertility and are key to reducing domestic waste disposal requirements.

Did you know that composting has been happening throughout history, and is referenced repeatedly in the Old Testament.  Ancient composting practices were central to maintaining soil fertility, structure and balance, and these practices have been developed and refined during the last 6,000 years.

In recent years home composting has caught hold of gardeners all over the world.  Many gardeners are composting in trusted ways proven by generations with great success.   Others, using new techniques and methods have increased the speed of the composting process and are also achieving great results.

One compelling aspect of composting is that there is no need to buy anything.  However, there are some very useful composting tools and some very advanced and sophisticated compost bins available to make the work a lot easier, and today more people than ever before make compost at home.

The Indore Method

The Indore method was initially developed and described by the father of modern organic farming, Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947) in his dissertation on organic agriculture, An Agricultural Testament (1940).   The single most extensively covered topic was the Indore composting method, identified, studied, and adapted from ancient agricultural practices in Indore, India.  During a sequence of scientific experiments Howard had demonstrated that compost generated higher plant productivity than either fertilizer or raw manure.

During the early days of organic gardening, the Indore method was about the only systematic way for the home gardener to convert waste materials to mature compost.  With the Indore method, a compost heap is built in layers, using first a 200mm (~6 inch) layer of green matter like weeds, crop waste, grass clippings or leaves.  The next layer is a 70mm (~2 inch) layer of manure, which is in turn covered by sprinklings of topsoil.  The layers are repeated until the pile reaches a height of about 1.5 meters (5 feet) and the heap is kept moist.

The pile is then turned after 6 weeks and again after 12 weeks to allow air to penetrate so that the pile will heat up properly. After about 3 months, the compost is finished and ready to be mixed into the soil.

These instructions were followed by many gardeners as a way to prepare homemade fertilizer,  but even as this method started to become widely used, changes were already being made to the original Indore technique.

One early improvement was that the materials be mixed as they were put onto the heap, instead of layering them and keeping the soil, vegetable wastes and manure separated.  Starting with the 200mm (~6 inch) layer of vegetable wastes, when applying the 70mm (~2 inch) layer of manure and the topsoil all three components are forked up the immediately.  This means that the material gets mixed up and decomposition is much better and more complete than if the material is left as separate layers.  By doing this, the heap only needs to be turned once instead of twice.

Sheet Composting

The next major development was so-called sheet composting.   This is a method best suited for farms and large gardens, because the materials that would normally go into in the compost heap are spread out over the entire field or garden area, and even though it is not a suitable method for composting at home, it is still provides some insights into the composting process.

The initial step is to layer raw the correct mix of green and brown organic materials directly onto the soil, and then work them into the soil with a tiller or tractor right where they will be used.  Because organic matter is most valuable to the soil while it is decaying, sheet composting is very helpful in building soil structure.

On a smaller scale it is probably the easiest, least labour intensive way of composting.  As long as you correctly mix the green and brown materials, you can dig the materials straight into the soil and let the composting process take place there.  You do need to be careful with the mix because the process will use nitrogen directly from the soil if it is deficient in the mix of materials, thus preventing any nearby plants from using it.

Composting Quickly

Even though the layering method of heap composting showed that mature compost could be made in a few months instead of over a year, many gardeners still wanted a home composting method where decomposition would take place in a matter of days or weeks.  This led to the development of the actively managed, so-called “Two Week Method”, which is now used by gardeners all over the world.

The premise of the “Two Week Method” is to grind or shred all the organic materials before they go into the compost bin.  When the particle size is 6cm (2 inches) or less, there is more surface area for bacteria to work on, better aeration and moisture control, and more thorough mixing of various materials.

There is no need to layer the material because it is mixed either before or after shredding, and then piled in heaps no more than 1.5 meters (~5 feet high).  Every 3 days, the heap is turned, which is a simple task since the material is light and fluffy.  After 10 days to 2 weeks, the heat of the pile has dropped, and the compost is sufficiently mature to use on the soil.

Many different chipper shredders are available, and rotary lawn mowers also cut up materials efficiently.  You can pile weeds, leaves, straw or stable manure on the ground and run the lawn mower over them.

You can also make the task of turning the pile easier by using a rotating compost bin or a compost tumbler.

Compost Boxes and Bins

You can pretty much use just about any  container you can think of for composting at home.   This includes cages made from chicken wire, woven wire fencing, picket fences, cement blocks, wooden planks, bricks, stones, or whatever else is available.  You are limited only by your imagination and the materials you have handy.

compost-bin

Common compost bin

Such compost containers make a neat, firm compost pile — especially suited for backyard suburban gardens.  By having one side open or an easily-removable side, it is a simple task to turn the heap or remove finished compost.  Another advantage is that such compost bins can be insulated by covering with a tarpaulin, so that compost will still “work” during winter.

Modern Methods

A number of more advanced composting methods, such as worm composting, bokashi composting and brewing compost tea, are becoming more and more popular.

Worm Composting

Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is a composting method where worms basically eat the compostable material, such as garden waste, fruit, vegetable and other organic kitchen scraps.  See worm composting for more information.

Bokashi Composting

Bokashi is an anaerobic composting process which originates from Japan.  It is an ideal method for composting inside.  Bokashi refers to both the composting system and the fermented bran, rice or hay that makes the process possible.  See Bokashi composting for additional information.

Brewing Compost Tea

Liquid compost, or compost tea is an aerobic water solution that has extracted and grown the microbe population from mature compost (along with nutrients) by an aeration process, as an organic approach to plant and soil care.  For more information see Brewing Compost Tea.