Although the practice of composting has been around for at least thousands of years, much of the scientific knowledge about the composting process has been uncovered since the mid-1900s.
There is no need to look beyond the science and look beyond the pristine forest floor here. Fallen leaves, pine needles, branches, and other organic matter will decompose without reading the guidelines. It will take a few more months, but the process will occur naturally.
The nursery industry and many home gardeners want compost in weeks to months. To get that quick product, you can follow the composting process to get the correct carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and the right amount of moisture.
Splitting the material into two parts greatly simplifies the composting process. I’ll describe the “green” and “brown” materials you put in your compost pile.
Green is a nitrogen source. The green material is brightly colored, freshly cut and moist. They provide the compost workers with nutrients and moisture. Kitchen scraps of vegetables, fresh lawn clippings, piles of weeds just pulled from the garden, or other fresh trimmings from the landscape are “green.”
Brown is the carbon source. Brown is also used to provide energy, absorb excess moisture and give structural strength to the pile. Any pine needles or old dried clippings you collect will be the brown material.
The easiest method is to combine 1 part green material with 2-3 parts brown material. When lots of leaves (brown material) are readily available, some gardeners use what they need for the amount of greenery they currently have, and set the rest of the leaves aside so that the greens grow. Mix with fresh green trimmings or kitchen vegetable scraps when available.
Layer these greens and browns over an area over 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Lay the brown layer first, then alternate green and brown until you have a pile that is at least 3 feet high.
Quantity is important for home composters. When making yours, be at least 3 feet wide x 3 feet deep x 3 feet high. This amount ensures that you can have enough heat to kill weed seeds and kill diseased plant tissue and other harmful pathogens.
The real activators are bacteria and fungi. These are aerobic bacteria that generate heat as they oxidize the carbon material present. There is a specific type of aerobic bacteria that can heat a compost pile to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Many gardeners have seen their stakes get very hot and generate steam as they work.
If you want to add bacteria or fungi, we do not recommend buying those products. If you want to add inoculants, activators, or other additives, simply shovel the top soil all over and you’ll get a good number of microbes.
This is an interesting process. Not all compost piles reach very high temperatures, so don’t be disappointed if yours doesn’t. Under the best conditions, it will become usable compost in a month or two, but an unmanaged pile of leaves will take a year or more.
— Shaniqua Davis is an agriculture and natural resources extension agent for Greg County. Email: Shaniqua.Davis@ ag.tamu.edu .