Composting Basics

Composting Basics

Part of Ep. 1806 The End of the Season is Just the Beginning

Lone Rock, Master Gardener volunteer Roger Reynolds builds the perfect compost pile and shares the secrets to his success.

Premiere date: Aug 25, 2010

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:
You're looking at black gold. At least, that's what it is for most of us gardeners. This is compost and we're here today to talk about the fine art of making our own compost. I'm with Master Gardener Roger Reynolds and we're near Lone Rock. And you teach a lot of classes about this and I know this is a passion for you. So let's get right to it. First of all, this is almost ready to go. Exactly what is compost?

Roger Reynolds:
Compost, for most gardeners, we're trying to get nitrogen. So the composting process is a way where we take a nitrogen component use carbon to help retain that nitrogen so it can get to our plants. In the process, we use microbes and we're growing microbes that will help our plants, because they digest this and make it available to our plants, and we also build organic matter so the OM on our test goes up.

Shelley Ryan:
So we're helping the plants, it helps feed the plants. We're adding organic matter to the soil, basically.

Roger Reynolds:
Right. There's a huge mix of microbes in here, and sometimes they help feed the plant sometimes they help protect the plants and sometimes they are actually predatory to each other and kill some of the bad microbes in our garden.

Shelley Ryan:
And today, they don't mind getting wet, I hope, either.

Roger Reynolds:
No, 'cause it's raining. They like it wet.

Shelley Ryan:
Well, let's talk about how we make it. What are the basic components of compost?

Roger Reynolds:
The basic components of compost, there's really five ingredients. There's some carbon material, some nitrogen material moisture, which we have.

(both laugh)

The microbes that do the work, and then they need oxygen. It's those five ingredients.

Shelley Ryan:
Well, people talk about the carbon and the nitrogen and the greens and the browns. Can you explain that better?

Roger Reynolds:
Yeah. I like to simplify it and bring it down to humans. We're looking to create a balanced diet for the microbes. They can't move around, so that's why we layer, and they need a carbon to nitrogen ratio of between 20 and 40 parts carbon to one part nitrogen.

Shelley Ryan:
Math, okay.

Roger Reynolds:
But that's about all we're going to talk about that. And with the carbon, I like to think of this as meat and potatoes. We're getting the balanced diet for them.

Shelley Ryan:
Okay.

Roger Reynolds:
So the potatoes are like carbohydrates, like carbon. And the meat, nitrogen is what helps make protein. So the nitrogen components are like meat. So we're getting potatoes and meat, carbon and nitrogen, for the microbes.

Shelley Ryan:
And we're layering because they can't run around the dining room table, so we add carbon and nitrogen.

Roger Reynolds:
In the layers, exactly.

Shelley Ryan:
Let's start talking some of the ingredients of our meat and potatoes. What do you have here, Roger?

Roger Reynolds:
Here we have aged cow manure and a bale of hay. And these are both already in that 20 to 40 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. You could put these together, just the hay, just the poop or just both of them, and it would make compost in about six months.

Shelley Ryan:
So these are the meat and potatoes right here. Everything's set.

Roger Reynolds:
Exactly.

Shelley Ryan:
Not all of us have that so we're going to look at some of the other things we have around the garden. These are the carbon.

Roger Reynolds:
And three key words to think about for carbon ingredients is that they're usually dry, unless it's raining.

(both laugh)

They're burnable, and they're brown.

Shelley Ryan:
So you've got sawdust, cardboard. I didn't think of that.

Roger Reynolds:
Cardboard comes from trees.

Shelley Ryan:
And is this straw or hay?

Roger Reynolds:
This is straw. And then some newspaper. Just don't use the glossy stuff.

Shelley Ryan:
And each one of these has a different carbon to nitrogen ratio, but we'll get into that.

Roger Reynolds:
Right, and dry leaves would also be in this group.

Shelley Ryan:
From the lawn, sure. Now, this is something most gardeners deal with. This is the nitrogen end.

Roger Reynolds:
This is the nitrogen end. The scraps from our kitchen, vegetable scraps some scraps from the garden, those zucchini that get too big, these are all in the nitrogen range. And the three key words for this. Are they wet? Are they stinky? Or if they sat around would they get stinky? And they're usually green.

Shelley Ryan:
First question when I look at giant zucchini, do they have to be chopped into little pieces?

Roger Reynolds:
They don't have to be chopped up into little bitty pieces like sawdust. I chop them with a shovel a couple of times and that's good enough. Fresh grass clippings would also go in this group.

Shelley Ryan:
And they're definitely green and they definitely can get stinky. Let's look at your bins and talk about building. But first of all, we have to look at the bins themselves. Should I go out and get an expensive bin? You didn't.

Roger Reynolds:
I didn't. The bin that you use will not make any difference in the compost you get. It's the ingredients of the compost. So it's the ingredients and the layers. Cheap and simple. These are pallets I got free by some store.

Shelley Ryan:
I love 'em.

Roger Reynolds:
And I use wire, or you can use wire coat hangers. Just wire the corners together and you've got a compost bin that will work great.

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, so you're building this one. Now, you've already started with a layer. This is carbon?

Roger Reynolds:
Correct.

Shelley Ryan:
So talk to me a little bit about the ratio and what you do next.

Roger Reynolds:
Well, sawdust is very high in carbon. And it compresses easily, so there's a couple things you have to think about. Leaves don't compress as much, so they'd be fluffier, but they also have a lower carbon to nitrogen ratio. So you'd need more leaves for starting this base.

Shelley Ryan:
And each thing has a different ratio. And we will have the carbon to nitrogen ratios on our Web site, so don't worry about that.

Roger Reynolds:
Very good.

Shelley Ryan:
So you're using sawdust. So you'd have to use more vegetable scraps then?

Roger Reynolds:
Well, you start with sawdust and then some amount of vegetable scraps. And then some carbon, and then some stuff from the garden, building those layers. And when you think about the carbon to nitrogen ratios, you have some amount of nitrogen. Usually most people have kitchen scraps. So then you need to do a decent amount of nitrogen, and then you need to get carbon on top of that to help hold the nitrogen in.

Shelley Ryan:
Is there an easy way, when I'm out there building this or out there looking at it to know if I'm doing it right or wrong? What happens if it's smelling?

Roger Reynolds:
If your compost pile is smelling, it's too much nitrogen, so you need to add some carbon. You're going to have to take it apart and put layers of some carbon material in there.

Shelley Ryan:
And if it's not breaking down then I assume it's the other way.

Roger Reynolds:
Right, if your compost pile is not breaking down, you have one of two problems. Either it needs moisture or it needs some nitrogen.

Shelley Ryan:
So we're back to that. The moisture is a component of this, very important. Here you've got one that's in the cooking stage, basically.

Roger Reynolds:
Exactly.

Shelley Ryan:
And all the layers, in fact I think I can even see it look like soybeans growing in there.

Roger Reynolds:
Yes, they are. They're high in nitrogen.

Shelley Ryan:
And you're trying to get to a temperature of...?

Roger Reynolds:
When you first put it together, it will heat up. But we're doing a cool pile which means we're not going to turn it.

Shelley Ryan:
Good, I like that!

Roger Reynolds:
Yes, less work. When you first put it together, it'll heat up. And this is the compost thermometer. It's a little over 120 degrees down in there about 20 inches. That will last for two to three weeks then the temperatures go down a little bit above the air temperature. And we're going to leave it for six months to a year.

Shelley Ryan:
Okay, so no turning, I don't have to do any work. I like it. Sun or shade?

Roger Reynolds:
Shade. Of the five ingredients, moisture is the one thing that the compost pile gives off, and it can't get it back unless it's raining. So we want it in the shade, because we don't want the sun drying our compost pile out.
Shelley Ryan:
Sure. So if it's raining steadily, we don't need to worry about it. Otherwise, you need to go out there and add moisture on a regular basis.

Roger Reynolds:
Exactly.

Shelley Ryan:
Let's look at your finished product. This is six months old?

Roger Reynolds:
Exactly. With the slow pile, the sides aren't as digestive as the middle, but the middle is ready to go. And the sides we'll put into the new pile.

Shelley Ryan:
Fantastic. This looks excellent, Roger, thank you very much.

Roger Reynolds:
Thank you.

EPISODE SEGMENTS+
EPISODE RESOURCES+

Download Podcast »

Buy DVD »

Funding for The Wisconsin Gardener is provided, in part, by The Wisconsin Master Gardener Association.