Composting is a method of recycling naturally decomposing matter. Ingredients, size of the pile, local weather conditions, and your maintenance habits will affect the outcome. Note that shredded leaves, chipped wood, and chopped food scraps generally decompose more quickly than whole or large pieces.
The quickest way to produce rich garden humus is to create a hot, or active, compost pile. It is called “hot” because it can reach an internal temperature of 160°F (140°F is best) and “active” because it destroys, essentially by cooking, weed seeds and disease-causing organisms. The size of the pile, the ingredients, and their arrangements in layers are key to reaching that desired outcome.
Size: A hot compost pile should be a 3-foot cube, at minimum; a 4-foot cube is preferred. The pile will shrink as the ingredients decompose.
Pile the ingredients like a layer cake, with carbon materials on the bottom (twigs and woody stems here will help air to circulate into the pile). Next, cover the layer with soil. Add nitrogen-based materials, followed by soil. Repeat until the pile reaches 2 to 3 feet high.
Soak the pile at its start and water periodically; its consistency should be that of a damp (not wet) sponge.
Add air to the interior of the pile by punching holes in its sides or by pushing 1- to 2-foot lengths of hollow pipe into it.
Check the temperature of the pile with a compost thermometer or an old kitchen thermometer. A temperature of 110°F to 140°F is desirable. If you have no heat or insufficient heat, add nitrogen in the form of soft green ingredients or organic fertilizer.
If a foul odor emanates from the pile, flip the compost to introduce more air. And consider: Did you add meat or dairy products? Remove and discard them, if possible.
Once a week, or as soon as the center starts to cool down, turn the pile. Move materials from the center of the pile to the outside. (For usable compost in 1 to 3 months, turn it every other week; for finished compost within a month, turn it every couple of days.)
You’ll need four pallets to make your compost bin (cut them to size if they’re not all the same), and they should display the IPPC or EPAL logo plus the letters HT, which means the wood has been heat treated and is safe to use for composting. Avoid pallets that have the letters MB on them, as these have been treated with a toxic pesticide, methyl bromide.
In addition to the ingredients mentioned above, any of these items may be added to a compost pile:
Cold, or passive, composting requires less effort. You essentially let a pile build and decompose, using the same type of ingredients.
It requires less effort from the gardener, yet the decomposition takes substantially longer—a year or more.
To cold compost, pile organic materials (leaves, grass clippings, soil, manures—but avoid dog, cat, and human waste) as you find or accumulate them. Bury kitchen scraps in the center of the pile to deter insects and animals. Avoid adding meat, dairy, and fat. Also avoid weeds; cold compost piles do not reach high temperatures and do not kill weed seeds. (In fact, weeds may germinate in a cold pile.)
You’ll also need:
Over time, to make a really efficient composting system you may wish to add additional compost bins alongside the first. Three bays makes composting easy because it allows for the three main stages of composting. Bay 1 is the active bay, which you’re currently adding composting materials to. Bay 2 has been filled and is rotting down. Bay 3 contains ready-to-use mature compost.
When Bay 3 is empty, it then becomes the new active bay, while Bay 2 should now be ready (or close to ready) and Bay 1 is left to rot down.
Bell Tower Festival
at the gardens
Gardens are always open
10:00 - 4:00 PM Daily
Weekends: May - October
10:00 - 4:00
201 East Lincoln Way
Jefferson, Iowa 50129
The Thomas Jefferson Gardens bring to life the prairies that welcomed Lewis and Clark explorers and early settlers, heritage plants from Monticello, farming practices of Thomas Jefferson’s time, outdoor musical instruments to experience, a children’s garden, and so much more.