Composting is a great way to build up the nutrients in your soil and add health and vitality to your garden.
Many home gardeners make their own compost. It is almost like a rite of passage; Once you begin making your own compost, you know you’ve gotten bit by the “gardening bug” and there’s no going back. But that is a good thing!
The traditional method of composting is called regular composting or cold composting. This is the method most gardeners use, and it’s where you place a variety of organic materials together in a bin or a heap and allow them to break down over time. It’s a simple and very effective method, but it takes time. In fact, it’s a very slow process that can take up to a year in some cases. You can speed up the process a little by “turning” your compost regularly. By moving the materials around in the heap, you allow oxygen to circulate and the decomposition process happens faster.
There Is A Faster Way!
Hot composting will produce rich organic compost in a much shorter time. This method will also break down seeds in the process; something that cold composting does not do. (Which is why you should never cold compost weeds unless you mind dealing with weeds over and over and over again anywhere you place your compost.) Hot composting also has the ability to break down pathogens and diseases. This is a nice bonus, especially for plants that make it in to your compost heap that you do not recognize as diseased. However, we do not recommend placing any plants you know to be diseased in any compost, cold or hot.
Hot compost also looks nice. When finished, it resembles fine black humus or soil. Cold compost often leaves behind “chunky” pieces of material that haven’t fully decomposed. Sure, this is a minor point but it may make a difference to some gardeners who like a pretty landscape, especially for flower beds.
The Berkeley method of hot composting was developed by the University of California at Berkeley. This method produces nice organic compost in just 18 days! In this method, you first build a compost heap. Then you leave the heap alone for 4 days with no turning. After that, you turn it every second day for fourteen days. There are some specific rules you should follow to achieve compost this quickly using this method.
The Ratio of Carbon To Nitrogen
The ratio of carbon to nitrogen should be between 25-30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, by weight. In other words, you need 25-30 pounds of carbon materials for every pound of nitrogen materials in your hot compost heap. These proportions allow the bacteria that decompose the matter to reproduce and multiply at greater rates.
Carbon-rich materials are usually “dry” and brown and come from natural material. These materials include sawdust, dried leaves, straw, limbs, branches, pine needles, wood chips, and some cardboard. Likewise, nitrogen-rich materials are “wet” and are mostly green materials such as grass clippings, garden debris, fruit and vegetable scraps, green leafy materials, and some animal manure. Any large items, like tree branches, should be chopped up into smaller chunks before hot composting for best results.
Anything that was once living can be hot composted! You just have to make sure it falls into the right category so that your carbon to nitrogen ratio is accurate.
Once you’ve got the right amount of materials for each category, start by mixing your ingredients together to form a heap. Alternate them in the heap by layering a little “green” nitrogen materials between layers of “brown” carbon materials. Wet your compost heap until it is heavily saturated all the way through. This is best achieved by wetting each layer as you add it.
Allow the new heap to sit for 4 days. On day 4, turn the compost heap over completely. This step is critical. Make sure to mix (turn) your heap thoroughly, allowing all outside materials to be turned inside, and vice versa. In other words, you want to turn the heap completely inside-out. This part is key to making quick hot compost! A garden fork or pitchfork works nicely. Turn the pile completely every 2 days afterwards … day 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18. By day 18 you should have some nice black compost, if you started with the right ratio of materials and turned it accurately enough.
A few more tips:
Your heap should be located in an area where it is protected from too much sun or rain. You don’t want your compost heap to dry out, but you don’t want it sopping wet, either. Too much water slows down the hot composting process. That said, it is important to retain some moisture. If you notice your compost heap is too dry, wet it thoroughly as you turn it, layer by layer.
In extremely cold or wet weather, place a tarp over the heap to protect it from too much moisture and to keep it from cooling off rapidly.