(04/24/2009)
Submitted by Brandy Brabham
WVU Extension Agent

You can build a backyard compost pile. How much work is really involved? Composting can be as much or as little work as you want to make it. The more effort you put into it, the faster you will have finished compost. Building a "hot pile" takes more effort and decomposes faster than a "cold pile."

A "hot pile" is a pile that has been built with optimum mass, moisture, air and materials in a 30:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. It is called a "hot pile" because the pile reaches over 140 degrees F at its center as these conditions attract the most efficient microbes, the thermophylic bacteria.

To get your pile going, you may want to follow the least-effort alternatives. You can always come back and find ways to speed up the process by taking additional steps.

The only required equipment is a shovel or pitchfork to turn or move the contents of the pile.

Equipment you may use, shovel, pitchfork, compost bin(s), water hose, axe, mulching mower or other chopping instrument, garden gloves, wheelbarrow.

Equipment you may use if you are REALLY serious, aeration tool, thermometer, compost sifter.

The best results for compost are 75 percent brown materials and 25 percent green materials. However, a 50:50 or 40:60 ratio will work. The pile should be damp, but not soggy—about like a wrung out dish rag. Layer the materials: brown, green, a thin layer of soil. Then moisten these three layers and continue to layer until the pile is 3 feet high.

The Browns (Carbon sources) - Leaves (mulched, if possible, and then dampened); Shredded paper towels, tissue, paper napkins (only if free of dyes, chlorine and inks); Chipped brush, sawdust The Greens (Nitrogen sources); All household vegetable and fruit scraps (Chopping these will speed up the process); Crushed eggshells; Coffee grounds, brown coffee filters, tea bags; Grass clippings (in very thin layers only); Weeds without seeds, dead leaves (Dandelions, maple leaves and oak bark add desirable minerals.)

The No-No List - Meat, fish, bones, dairy products, peanut butter, fats, oil, pet waste, synthetic materials or anything treated with chemicals, such as plywood or particle board, diseased plants.

Aerate the compost by turning it with a pitchfork every time you add new material. Turn it a minimum of every two weeks. Aeration will help to generate heat and keep the "recipe" cooking. If you add earthworms to your bin, you don't have to be as diligent with the turning process as worms aid the aeration process.

Harvest the bin every few months so it doesn't overflow. Use this "black gold" to condition soil for annuals, vegetables, new or established lawns, trees, shrubs and perennials.

As an alternative to building a compost pile you can build a "lasagna garden" where you layer products such as leaves and grass clippings right into the area where you plan to garden. Using the lasagna method, some gardeners set up several beds, plant directly into them and have good crops.


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