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Composting 101: How, What & Why to Compost at Home

Composting 101 How, What & Why to Compost at Home

First – composting is FOR gardening – but IS NOT GARDENING activity. Composting is ranching. ~ Ranching? Yup. Raising ‘ANIMAL livestock’ that eat organic material – including pasture grass – but only when that grass is inside a compost pile. Think “micro-herd”.

As a scientist/researcher‘, I can get more ‘technical’ about this than you’d be able to comprehend – but that’s not myy objective. I’ll attempt to present a non-technical perspective of the SCIENCE behind composting. I know PRECISELY how aerobic microbes make compost and what it takes to make the HIGHEST QUALITY compost in the SHORTEST time using the EASIEST methods to accomplish those goals.

So what commercial composters take up to 12 MONTHS to accomplish – I train composters to accomplish in 12 WEEKS – (52 divided by 12 = 4.3 times faster) – with a MUCH higher quality result.

What is the definition of QUALITY?

Start with TILTH (or FRIABLITY) – sometimes referred to as “crumbliness”. Then there’s the ‘sweet, earthy’ aroma akin to a forest floor – produced by microbes called actinomycete (now called ‘actinobacteria’) that a composter should attempt to increase in the community. Moisture retention capacity is another measure of quality – that is developed by ensuring that the variety of feedstocks is correctly used.

How much NUTRIENT CYCLING is going on – to make IMMEDIATELY AVAILABLE food for plants – depends on whether the FULL microbial community exists in it. And am not referring to the ‘total’ fertilizer in the compost material that ‘soil tests’ present – but rather how much Macro/Micro/Trace nutrients are PRESENTLY AVAILABLE to plants – which is mostly determined by how the compost pile has been MANAGED through the various stages of development.

See, it really doesn’t matter how much TOTAL nutrients the compost contains. But this is an INTRODUCTORY page – so we’ll leave further details regarding compost quality for later…

Composting is solely a HUMAN activity, designed to ‘manage’ Mother Nature’s MICROBIOLOGICAL system of decomposing organic material into organic MATTER – at which point one cannot tell what you’re looking at was a leaf, a piece of grapefruit rind, or a small stick.

When you CANNOT TELL what a given original feedstock item was – THEN you can consider the compost is capable of providing sufficient nutrients to sustain a plant. Until then – if you use earlier compost stages in your garden – you will still need to supplement plant nutrient needs – with organic fertilizers, of course (not synthetic chemicals that harm the microbes that you depend on to make compost ‘happen’). Please don’t “shoot yourself in the foot” by using Miracle Gro – use IMPACT brand instead (which I sell, of course…).

composting requires five major things

Basically, composting requires five (5) major things:

  1. Collection of a VARIETY of Feedstocks (food for microbes) and processing/arranging that material in a certain way
  2. Air (for aerobic composting) – specifically the value of FREE oxygen content
  3. Water (the medium in which microbes live) – and the quality of water DOES make a difference!
  4. Time (whatever you have available)
  5. Effort (your energy)

Microorganisms are not included in the list above, because Mother Nature has already provided them. However, making the ‘right’ microbes MULTIPLY quickly – is the key.

The last two things – your time and effort – are the most important. To the degree you ACTIVELY MANAGE a pile – to THAT degree your compost pile will result in producing quality garden-ready Organic MATTER. And that’s generally the stage a composter ‘shoots for’.

BUT – the answer to EVERY composting question is always: “DEPENDS“.

EXAMPLE: When is using UNstable-to-STABLE (1st turn) compost a good idea?

YES – you CAN incorporate UNstable-to-STABLE (cannot heat-up anymore – to a temperature that would be harmful for plant roots – into your garden with shovel or tiller BEFORE YOU PLANT – and it will continue to decompose – but at a MUCH SLOWER RATE than it would if you had left it in a pile for a longer period of time.

SECOND EXAMPLE: if a winter ‘blast’ is forecast earlier than expected – and you are facing the probability of a plant-damaging FROST – then BY ALL MEANS get first-turn UNstable-to STABLE compost SIDE-DRESSED ONto (NOT INto) the garden dirt that WILL bring warmth to the root zone of plants – and COVER the plants with some type of ‘row cover’ – so the compost ON the ground will ALSO keep the UPPER plant parts also safe through the frost period.

Below are listed the ‘normal’ STAGES that compost goes through – which will be explained in later sections:

  1. New-Build ~ HOT Pile Management
  2. UNstable-to-STABLE (after 1st Turn)
  3. Stable-to-FINISHED (after 2nd Turn)
  4. Finished-to-MATURE (after 3rd Turn)
  5. Mature-to-AGED (after 4th Turn)
  6. AGED+ (5th+ Turns)


If it was alive – and is now dead (or recently harvested) – it can be composted. Period – NO exceptions. Saprophytic (look up that word online) microbes can ‘eat’ it because ALL Organic material is CARBON-based. With few exceptions, INORGANIC material does not contain carbon. BUT – I do not recommend that a beginner composter attempt to try using ROAD KILL as a feedstock (that’s covered in the Advanced course). ~

Microbes produce ENZYMES that dissolve (solublize) dead and decaying organic material. That’s Mother Nature’s system ‘in a nutshell’. The end result of microbial activity is to change the molecular structure of the material – and the CARBON they consume is first converted into ENERGY to power their activity.

Microbes ‘reconstruct’ the molecules that make up your feedstock variety – to extract the NITROGEN necessary to make microbe cells for the purpose of reproduction.

When talking about Feedstock VARIETY, I’m referring to the Carbon-to-Nitrogen (C:N) Ratio – to achieve a BALANCE of both Carbon and Nitrogen that microbes need to proliferate.

The actual C:N ratio of any material can be determined in a laboratory using special equipment – expensive. But C:N ratio is very difficult to determine accurately “in the field”, even using some of the ‘cheat-sheets’ found on the Internet – which can be WAY off – because nitrogen is volatile (is lost in air and water) – so AGE of a given feedstock has a LOT to do with accurately ESTIMATING the combined C:N of a total feedstock variety based on the quantity of each feedstock being used.

So for beginners, there’s a lot of guess-work involved in composting – UNLESS you understand the SCIENCE behind what happens in a compost pile – which the vast majority of composting sites on the Internet – DON’T TELL YOU. So if you compost by the ‘seat of your pants’ – its strictly an ART FORM. To the extent that you DO know the science behind what you’re doing – then YOUR method of composting can be called a “Science-based Art form”.

Composting is simply a MANAGED human method to speed up (by 100x+ times) the normal decomposition of organic material (OM) – to turn it into organic MATTER which produces organic plant food. In the process, the microbes consume EACH OTHER – and expel the digested ‘poop’ from their cells – which has been converted into nutrients IMMEDIATELY available for plants.

Very simple: organic plant food is MICROBE POOP. The more microbes in your pile consuming the right feedstock variety – the more high-quality microbe poop your compost pile will produce – and the more productive your plants will be.


Air contains oxygen – necessary for aerobic microbes to remain active/viable (alive). Not enough oxygen? Then bacteria stop working and go dormant – and fungi and protozoa produce reproductive ‘spores’ before they die. ~



H2O is two molecules of hydrogen bonded together with one molecule of oxygen. Absolutely necessary for aerobic microbiology to remain active and reproduce. They can live in a water ‘biofilm’ that is only a few molecules of water thick.

And most all fresh (as in not stagnant) water has some dissolved oxygen in it – simply because of DIFFUSION and the amount of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) in water is VERY IMPORTANT to microbial propagation ability. Aerobic microbes (with very few exceptions) CANNOT BREAK the H20 molecular bond to get that one molecule of oxygen. FREE (dissolved) oxygen MUST be available in the water (between H20 molecules).

In contrast, ANaerobic composting uses microbes that don’t need free oxygen(air) to break down organic material – but use ‘sulfur’ compounds instead. So anaerobic composting can be a smelly process and takes longer than aerobic composting usually does. But it’s a valid composting process – finishes like the ‘muck’ found at the bottom of the old ‘swimming hole’.

Smelly’ is a negative thing – and is referred to as ODOR by composters – in contract to a good smell which is termed an AROMA. ODOR is the result of producing gasses (such as hydrogen sulfide [rotten eggs odor] and methane [explosive]. IF your AEROBIC compost has ODOR – then you’re doing something wrong – most commonly putting food waste too close to the surface of a Continuous-Add (CA) pile – so putrefaction microbiology are active – instead of aerobic decomposition microbes.


The life cycle of a microbe is measured in minutes. On average, only about 15 minutes. Time is what makes aerobic composting different. Faster results than normally occurs naturally underground or water. By ‘managing’ Mother Nature’s process, finished compost takes only a few months, instead of years.


This is what makes the real difference. The way that organic materials are combined (usually in layers). Composting simply supplies a mixture of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in an intended ratio of about 40-to-one (40:1).

So composting is very much about C:N ratio. A COMBINED FEEDSTOCK RATIO higher than about 35:1 does not decompose as well as a lower COMBINED ratio in the 35:1 range.

But the COMBINED feedstock ratio of total pile material should also not be less than 20 parts Carbon to one part of Nitrogen (Total C:N = 20:1). That’s why composters MUST learn to combine BROWN (high-carbon) material with GREEN (high nitrogen) materials within a TARGET RATIO.

On the other hand, composters use the materials they have available, which is more ‘browns’ than greens – which is where kitchen scraps (cooked and not cooked) become quite important – BUT kitchen scraps MUST be handled in a certain way – or you’ll have an ODOR issue to contend with…

Composting with the Frame Technique

Composting with the Frame Technique

The Frame Technique was originally conceived as a method of composting without use of a stationary containment. Why? Because back in 1985, a Florida Homeowner Association CCR (Covenants/Conditions/Restrictions) prohibiting use of a composting containment structures was upheld in a District Court.

According to the way this CCR was written, such a ‘structure’ would be used to contain materials as they matured to become compost. So there was a legal difference between a containment that you might use to collect yard or garden refuse in preparation for collection pickup, and a composting bin.

Not only that, but I found out that a LOT of homeowner’s associations had ‘outlawed’ composting in a variety of different ways, almost all of which could be ‘gotten around’ by using the Frame Technique since once the pile is made, all that is left is a “…pile of dirt…”. That’s what compost is. It is not soil. If you don’t like it being ‘dirt’ then call it a soil amendment. Either way, there is not ever going to be any laws enforced that restrict a neatly-maintained pile of dirt or soil amendment on private property.

To have a take-apart bin of any material with sides at least 36″ high was a major hassle to try and build a pile inside of it that would stay erect after the sides were removed.

So the Frame was ‘born’ to construct a compost pile that would stand on its own up to 4′ high, immediately after the pile was built.

It required designing and constructing a lightweight, inexpensive Frame that was very stable during the build; easy to take apart afterward and simple to raise as the pile gained height.

It took some experimenting to design a workable Frame, but then it took a lot of experimenting to come up with the procedures that would ensure unsupported pile stability, and at the same time provide a high-quality environment for exponential microbial reproduction.

The frame technique only works on piles that are at least one cubic yard. The basic ‘rule of thumb’ is this: Decide how high the pile is going to reach (in inches), and ensure that space is available for that same number of inches (or more) for width and length.

Rarely do I construct a pile taller than 40 inches, but I have made a no-bin pile as high as 52″ – but that required using a ladder, so won’t do that again…

I really do prefer making batch piles pretty much start-to-finish. With only a pitchfork, shovel and wheelbarrows I can make a 3 cubic yard pile in one day. But usually I don’t want to work that hard, so it may take me a week to get a large pile made or turned.

But as long as I have feedstock to work with, I do prefer making a large pile rather than two smaller piles.

In the photo you see one of my piles on a 8′ x 10′ tarp pad with a trench all the way around it. That’s to collect the leachate that seeps from the pile when you water each layer as the pile is made.

Collecting leachate means I NEVER need to buy any kind of plant fertilizer. Leachate is the best balanced plant fertilizer there is and won’t ever ‘burn’ a plant’s leaves.
If you compost, and you are not collecting the excess water that is not absorbed as you water the pile – you are wasting a very valuable resource.

The Frame Technique could be used with a wire bin also, but in order for a pile to remain intact after construction support is removed, it is necessary to compact (tamp) the perimeter (outer edge) of the feedstock as it was built – quite difficult to do with a round piece of wire without damaging the wire, but if you contact me, I’ll tell you how to make a tamping stick that works great and won’t tear up your wire bin.

distributed as soil amendment by the time more carry-over hay becomes available.


What is in a Compost Pile?

There are only TWO kinds of effective compost piles:

  • Hot-batch (thermal) – turned on schedule thru 5 stages
    • Except ASP – which need no turning until harvest
  • Cold Piles – without any turning (may take years)
    • Includes Continuous-Add with turning ‘as needed’ to harvest

Within each of those kinds there are many ways to compost.

What you see in the “Compost Piles” photo above is a hot-batch (thermal) [stands-on-its-own] binless pile that started at 5 cubic yards, created using the Frame Technique which does not need any type of containment to hold the pile together after completion.

The Frame Technique was invented by The SoilGuy in 1985, in response to a Homeowner Association covenant that prohibited use of any type of structure as a composting containment/bin on the subdivision property – in an attempt to keep residents from composting (due to a mis-guided concern involving possible “odor” and “rodent” issues – which properly-managed compost does not contend with.

A Binless Pile can be any size over one cubic yard (3′ x 3′ x 3′) and is constructed using a rectangular, size-adjustable frame made of half inch plywood and a few pieces of 2 x 4 lumber and some wood screws.

The pile in the photo was originally 5′ wide, 7′ long and stood 4′ high (5.18 cubic yards) This photo shows the pile following the 2nd turn, and while it has decomposed/shrunk to 4’6″‘ wide and 6’9″ long and 38″ high, due to SETTLING by gravity and SHRINKAGE due to rapid thermal decomposition.

Hot Batch Piles

“Hot” means ‘thermal’ – heated by means of exponential thermophilic bacterial reproduction and some chemical change activity. “Batch” means the pile is made at one time (perhaps over several days), then NO additional solid material is added with possible exception of some ingredients to assist in attaining a 2nd heat (after the 1st turn).

Also in this category are Aerated Static Piles (ASP).

ASP are the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective method of composting to achieve highest quality of product. No other method (to date) can achieve what ASP’s can accomplish.
BUT – there is a required methodology that must be followed, for ASP to work properly. To date, I know of NO commercial composting operation ANYWHERE that has succeeded in utilizing ASP, simply because they don’t know and comply with the SCIENCE behind the technique. Just sticking some aeration tubes under a huge pile and blowing air through the pipes – does NOT constitute ASP.

Cold Piles

“Cold” means that the pile was made not to heat (no turning) – or maybe it was supposed to heat – but didn’t. In most cases a ‘cold’ pile is a ‘continuous-add’ pile whereby feedstock variety is intentionally ‘out of C:N range‘ and new feedstocks are added throughout the full life of the pile – up to several weeks before it is ready to harvest/screen.

How long do herbicides last in compost

How long do herbicides last in compost?

Feedstocks contaminated with certain herbicides CAN affect the efficacy of even the best high-grade compost, so composters should be aware of methods to reduce and eliminate herbicidal impact.

Herbicide use is increasing in both the horticultural and agricultural industries, primarily driven by development of genetically modified organisms (GMO) such as Round-up Ready GMO seeds. Herbicides are systemic – taken into the plant’s cellular structure.

USDA reports that in 2011, herbicide use increased 26% with greater use of the more persistent herbicides which are chemical formulations retaining potency longer.

While woody bulking agents are usually not a concern (unless herbicides were used to kill those trees), composters who use feedstocks such as grass clippings from commercially-treated properties (especially sports fields) and/or hay, straw or stubble from agricultural cropland (including trampled hay from ranch operations) should know whether or not such materials have been treated with herbicides and if so, what herbicide was used and in what quantity (including the number of applications).

If a feedstock has been herbicidally treated, the recommended practice is to treat ALL contaminated feedstocks BEFORE combining into a compost mix, for several reasons.

The primary reason for pre-treatment is due to the 50%+/- reduction from saprophytic decomposition during composting which will result in DOUBLING the quantity of herbicide in the compost (by volume) until the compost microbial community has become mature enough to complete the task of “disassembling” the chemical structure of the herbicide.

There are NO known (to this author) chemical structures which nature’s microbiology cannot disassemble over time. While pollution (and resultant erosion) from synthetic chemical usage on plants will kill nature’s microbiological community in cropland/gardens (which is of course the objective of the synthetic chemical industry to make farmers totally dependent on their products) it is possible to counteract the microbial deficit by inoculating the land with liquid compost.

Studies have shown that thermophilic microbiology which creates heat cores DO NOT break the structural bonds of herbicides – so “getting a pile to heat” more is not an effective method of reducing herbicidal impact, but that being said, increasing heat core will improve overall compost quality.

ALL compost begins in the mesophilic stage and exponential reproduction of thermophilic biology (that causes heat cores) is limited by:

  • mix of minute (microscopic) particle size to achieve effective C:N ratio
  • dissolved oxygen content of water absorbed into feedstocks
  • adjustment of C:N ratio to 30:1 by liquid inoculations **carbonaceous (simple sugar carbohydrate – brix) inoculation into nitrogenous feedstocks such as manures and food waste
  • nitrogenous (soluble organic nitrogen) inoculation into carbonaceous feedstocks such as cellulose/lignin in the form of wood chips, hay, straw and cropland stubble

What commercial composters still don’t understand is that heat cores can be increased by pre-treating feedstocks by irrigating aerated inoculation water inoculated with C:N balancing additives – a process that many private composting operations have been doing successfully for many years.

The only other advice I can offer commercial composters that use wood bulking agents is to reduce particle size by using only double-grind wood and limit incorporation of herbicide-treated feedstocks to no more than 20% of total feedstock in a given batch or windrow.

However, if the persistent herbicides clopyralid or picloram are identified, reduce the amount of such contaminated feedstock to 10%. Such reduction practices will reduce the impact of herbicidal damage to compost sold for vegetable gardening to near-zero simply by volume control of herbicidal feedstock.

No chemical means to break the chemical structure of any herbicide is presently known to this author.

Degradation of herbicide chemical bonds IS only known to be accomplished by certain microbes (thought to be bacterial and principally actinobacteria, previously knows as actinomyctes) and studies continue in effort to identify such specific organisms.

However, it is becoming more apparent that it is not the organisms themselves which accomplish the de-structuring task, but rather the ENZYMES they produce, and not just certain enzymes, but rather a particular range of enzymes produced by multiple microorganisms that act in concert within the synergistic microbial soil food web community.

Therefore inoculation of the full bacterial community of the soil food web is the recommended treatment by incorporating a higher percentage of Mature or Aged compost into new compost batches. Commercial composters are advised to set aside a stock of 3/8″ screened compost in an aerated/inoculated static pile for this purpose (the microbial community in ‘standard’ commercial compost will not be sufficient for such task).

“Compost Tea” has been used for decades to inoculate compost irrigation water to increase microbial content but unfortunately, the vast majority of ‘compost tea’ does not contain a sufficiently high enough microbial concentration (usually less than 10/6 [10 to the 6th power] – not enough to do much good), unless pile leachate from such inoculations is collected and reused on such piles during the long ‘curing’ process which returns the soluble enzymes and plant foods to the pile.

The ROI Microbiotics Laboratory is engaged in on-going experiments with certain enzyme products graciously provided by DuPont Industrial Biosciences.

Studies and plant trials conducted by the ROI Microbiotics Laboratory are demonstrating that pre-treating herbicide-contaminated feedstocks (such as sports field grass clippings and baled hay) with enzyme-inoculated Liquid Microbial Concentrate (LMC) in bacterial concentrations of 10/15+ (10 to the 15th power and higher) is effective in reducing herbicide impact to plant-tolerable levels in MATURE compost. LMC formulations are now consistently produced in 10/20+.

The nightshade family of plants (Solanaceae characterized by alternate leaves, usually five-petaled flowers, and many-seeded fruits – vegetable plants such as eggplant, tomato, potato – including capsicum (culinary) peppers, and petunias) are being used to trial results since this plant family is particularly sensitive to all herbicides.

Certain tomato varieties are particularly susceptible which display severe “clubbing” of leaves and flowers which severely reduce fruit production and can cause death of the plant since photosynthesis of leaves is significantly reduced in plants that demonstrate the ‘clubbing’ effect.

Be aware that herbicidal damage is often not readily apparent until tomato plants begin the enzymatically-controlled flowering process (usually at 2-3 weeks or at 10″-15″ of initial growth. Herbicides kill plants by preventing the plant’s ability to produce certain enzymes necessary for its survival.

In most pepper varieties trialed, herbicidal damage was not apparent until plants matured to fruit set, resulting in smaller, deformed fruit that resisted the normal fruit ripening process (all peppers turn red at full ripeness).

Field trials have also demonstrated the efficacy of LMC application to cure herbicidally-damaged plants IF treated with LMC-PST (Plant & Soil Treatment) at onset of symptoms as both foliar and root drench. most treated tomato plants will recover and bear normal fruit with a set-back of about three weeks – meaning that optimal harvest yields may be reduced and late-plantings may not reach full fruiting potential.

Still, better than completely losing a crop harvest and with new LMC formulations using Dupont’s enzyme preparations to overcome herbicidally-caused enzymatic damage, we hope to significantly increase the cure rate of damaged crops and faster breakdown of herbicides during the composting process.

As demonstrated by the recent USDA report, herbicide use is only anticipated to increase and while this author applauds the US Composting Council in their efforts to ‘ban’ herbicide use on potential composting feedstocks, the bottom-line is that there are a LOT more agricultural farmers and ranchers using herbicides on crops than there are commercial composters who suffer from herbicidal use.

My advice to the USCC is to put their money and effort into finding ways to counteract herbicide impact in compost and high-concentrate microbial (enzyme resultant) inoculation is presently the only viable alternative.

Composting Old Hay

Composting Old Hay

Normally in a ranching/farming situation, some heavy equipment (such as tractor frontloader) or skidloader is available to accumulate carry-over hay in one location to ease the composting methodology for utilizing this particular material as a sole feedstock source.

Take a quick inventory of all the hay you have that’s laying on the ground. Figure what’s usable in other ways – and come up with a volume of hay (including trampled hay) that would be wasted if it were not composted.

Consider that in any given pasture/field location, there’s a place nearby that such hay could be moved to – preferably near a water source and with perhaps a slight slope.

Stack still-tight bales ON END so the center of the bale is exposed – THEN REMOVE bale wrapping. Loose hay (and/or trampled hay) can be piled on top, creating a pile as tall as possible with equipment available.

Once the pile size has been determined, then scrape/plow/dig a shallow [5″-6″ depth] trench several feet distant from the pile edge, completely around the pile – to collect water runoff (leachate).

Somewhere at the ‘low place’ of that trench, water will collect and run over – so extend the trench in a line to a hole dug in the ground from which the leachate water can be pumped back onto the composting hay pile.

Then on the opposite side of that hole, create another extension trench to another circle (composting area) trench about the same size as the first one – basically doubling the composting space.

If this description is a bit confusing, simply email a sketch of your proposed composting space to TheSoilGuy and I’ll be happy to assist with the layout.

How fast the hay will decompose depends on several factors:

  1. How much moisture exists in the hay fibers (saprophytic microbiology needs water in which to live (propagate) and perform their decomposition work. Hopefully rain will add to the moisture content of the pile. How wet should it be? That’s determined by PHYSICS (Gravity) – the TOP 20% of ANY composting pile of organic material will ALWAYS be between 30%-40% moisture content.

    The NEXT 30% lower ‘layer’ will ALWAYS be at 40%-50% – and the NEXT 30% lower layer will ALWAYS be at 50%-60% with the remaining lower levels of material at 70%+. The important thing to remember is that the bottom hay layer MUST DRAIN – MUST NOT be sitting in a pool of water – or it WILL go ‘anaerobic’ and could get slimy & smelly.
  2. The hay pile will need to be inoculated with the full microbial community – to work quickly. Inoculates may be available from local PRIVATE composters (avoid commercial composting facilities that process large amounts of wood chips – you don’t need to add slow-composting wood chips to your pasture or field). Top-quality inoculates are available from TheSoilGuy in dry form – which when mixed with water and sprayed on the pile, will promote fast composting activity without any odor.

Each compost pile will need to be ‘turned’ every so often – HOW OFTEN depends on factors relating to your individual pile construction. Turning is basically performed by ‘rolling’ the pile to the area on the other side of the leachate collection hole (usually covered first, with a piece of plywood).

Most folks think of compost as a dark, earthy-smelling and ‘crumbly’ material – which is true AFTER IT HAS MATURED. However, for incorporation into pasture/field soil, reaching that point of maturity is NOT NECESSARY.

Once the bottom 12″ to 16″ of the pile (compressed at the bottom due to the weight of the pile) has become well-rotted, move the hay above that level to the next composting area – then push-up and spread the STABLE [i.e., will no longer heat) material to the soil you desire to amend with the high-potency microbial material – that when disked-into the soil – will continue to decompose – and thereby increase the tilth and plant-nutrient capacity of the soil.

With inoculation of a large hay compost pile, it is expected that the ENTIRE pile will have been composted to (or beyond) the STABLE stage – so ALL of the hay will have been

How to Compost for Beginners

I grew up on the coast of Texas (Freeport), so the coastal environment has been ‘home’ to me before. But that was on sandy soil. Where we are now, it’s a whole ‘nother ‘ball game’ since my 2.5 acres is pure ‘gumbo’ clay – and salty since I live on the shore of a saltwater estuary.

I’ve been composting for 60+ years, and just because I compost whole ‘road kill’ and lots of fish carcasses does NOT suggest that you should too. At least until you learn how.

Largest animal that I’ve composted so far, is a road-kill deer, (with permission from Parks & Wildlife of course) quartered. But next time a local rancher has a cow or bull die, gonna try that when I get my larger ‘critter’ ple completed.

Largest fish carcass I’ve composted is a 7′ long 140# Alligator Gar – head, scales and all, but cut into pieces with a chain saw after filleting (gar is actually quite tasty when marinated and cooked like shark or stingray).

Takes some experience and a large pile to do compost that size critter. You might want to start with dairy products and kitchen meat scraps – unless you fillet fish and have carcasses left (lucky person). Fish bones compost just fine – faster than cattle or pig, coon or possum.

Best to use the hot, aerobic Batch method for meat, but is possible using a ‘cold’ aerobic method also – just requires turning/screening more often to maintain high mesophilic microbe activity and encourage other (larger) decomposers.

HOW feedstock is C:N layered is a KEY to composting meat, and understanding the nitrogen/protein relationship. But I’m not going to instruct how to do that here…

The way you compost, should be based on YOUR experience level, which means you should read up on things, and try different things, and ask questions – before you jump into doing something different.

Just prior to retiring, my wife and I purchased a couple of acres of land with 150′ of shoreline on Port Bay (a saltwater estuary), NW of Rockport, Texas, because fishing is one of my favorite ‘other’ hobbies and this place is well-protected from hurricane tidal surge.

The water you see in the photo below is pretty – but is NOT usable for plants or composting. Water table on our property IS the level of the saltwater bay, that fluctuates some with tides and wind. With land only 6′ over mean high water level, digging down more than 5′ meets salt water. All our plantings have to be in raised beds – which means that I need to make about 40 tons of compost a year.

To my way of thinking, fishing is at least as important a hobby as composting/gardening. Both hobbies are relaxing and feed us. The redfish in the photo below are usually what I fish for, and catch – in the 24″ to 32″ range. Very tasty. Also catch flounder, sea trout, black drum and an ocassional black-tip shark in the 3-4 foot range – fun on light tackle. Also verrry tasty when marinated in buttermilk & black pepper.

fishing hobby as composting

The water in the background is my ‘backyard’. Under the water is MUD, OK for wade fishing, while walking in the sea grass. Water depth in this bay is only about 3′ with some unmarked ‘honey holes’. Bait mullet is plentiful.

But, the quality of soil on dry land, is the same. VERY salty clay. Really ‘sucks’. Literally. Will hold a boot hard & fast when wet. Hard as a dang rock when dry.

8.4 pH (very alkaline), hard black gumbo clay. It is not good dirt (with less than 1% organic material in it). Very little air in the clay (because of microscopic particle size) and high salt content and high pH are the three main reasons that few plants can grow in that stuff.

In heat of dry summer, the clay has cracks 2″ wide going down 2+’. Can rip plant roots asunder. When it rains, the clay turns into ‘jelly’ as far down as rainwater goes. Has a PVR (swell/shrink) of 3.25 inches per 10′ of depth. Awful stuff. Very, very salty. But that’s the kind of challenge I like to tackle – because I KNOW what high-grade compost can do to make even this mucky soil productive.

Our 80′ deep well water is so salty/nasty a swallow will make you barf. The neighbor’s well at 450‘ depth, isn’t much better. The water table IS the level of the saltwater bay. Deepest I can dig on our property is about 5 feet, without having nasty saltwater come up in the hole.

We got electric power to our place, but being in the ‘boonies’, there’s no city water (we live on rainwater harvesting), no sewer service (aerated septic system), no mail delivery and no phone line. We’re on satellite for cell phone, TV and computer.

Below is an early 2007 shot of the property toward the evening sun, taken from on top of our 5th wheel next to water’s edge. The pile of dirt (seen behind the tractor in the photo) is left over from installing the road. Water well had just recently been drilled, and I had constructed the Pumphouse slab around it. Way down at the opposite end is where the WindScreen and Compost Area are. Behind the pile of clay and to the left of the Pumphouse slab, is where the house was built 2 years later. We moved in May 2010.

WindScreen and Compost Area

Yeah, boonies. But awesome wildlife, especially birds. Deer walk around the house and coyotes howl closeby. Regarding composting, I have to put up with possum, armadillo, skunks and such critters digging into my compost piles for grubs sometimes, but that’s not messy, with the way I compost.

Being a professional composter, I KNOW that this land can be changed, to be capable of growing beautiful strong plants, and I’m in the process of proving it. The only thing that grows in the unamended clay now, is saltgrass and some weeds. Mesquite trees are native in this area, but if any survive germination out here, they only grow to about a foot tall. Very stunted and sickly. Much of the property near us is wetlands. Soil test was not complimentary. Awful stuff.

Point is, composting is absolutely necessary for gardening out here. Much of my compost is used to make planting soil and container media. There’s a difference in the recipes – depending on the kind of plants I’m gonna grow. Some compost is also used for amending the clay, so roots in raised-bed planters have a ‘transition’ zone before getting into the hard salty clay below. I have to be especially cognizant of drainage issues when planting.

Knew I’d need LOTS of compost for this land, so began composting in just piles on the ground, soon after we got set up in our 5th wheel trailer (that we lived in for 3 years before finally finishing our home). The first set of photos below, were also taken back in early 2007.

Windscreen Area

The green ‘wall’ behind the pile of grass and the Sears 3-bag riding mower is called my ‘Windscreen Area’ where I keep containerized plants out of the wind, (which averages 15 mph most days (and nights). The riding bagging mower is essential equipment to produce the dry grass clippings I use for ‘brown’ (along with shredded live oak leaves) and some ‘green’ clippings as well. Although trampled hay that I collect from local ranch pasture is also a ‘staple’ feedstock. I can tell you how to find local trampled hay around where you live, if you’re interested…

Prevailing wind is from the SSE, so the Windscreen Area is angled on the property to provide maximum windbreak while working in the Compost Area. Some early planning that has paid-off, bigtime.

Next step was to dig out a pattern of pads framed with 2×2 pressure treated lumber (protected from termites, which amazingly, can live in this clay) and got tarps positioned on them, then capped the tarp edges with 1×2 P.T. lumber held with PrimeGuard screws (for harsh environment). Then began building piles on them, shown below.

Pads are easy to build, but if you’re thinking about doing that (even for a wire frame bin), contact me for some advice before you get started.

compost piles

Pads are 5′ wide x 7′ long because I use an 8′ x 10′ heavy-duty tarp to cover the pads, in which to collect compost leachate. No, leachate is not ‘tea’. ‘Tea’ is aerated, while leachate is not.

The trench around the pad is flat-blade shovel width, to make cleanup easy. Trench holds about 35 gallons of tea at a time. One end of the trench is only about 1″ deep, sloped on the sides toward the other end which is about a 10″ deep trough big enough for a 5-gallon bucket to dip tea. Really easy to make – but figure you’ll have to replace the tarp every two years. Takes about an hour for one person. There’s a ‘trick’ to replacing, so ask me how.

My compost piles start at least 48″ high and 5’x 7’x 4’=140cu.ft., divided by 27 (cu.ft. in a cubic yard) = 5+ cubic yards per pile. At average 900 pounds per cu.yd., each new pile weighs over two tons (about 4,500 pounds wet). And at over 65 years old, I do all that with a long-handled pitchfork with a ‘bad back’ – it’s all in the technique, not so much physical strength.

Each pile decreases in volume about 45% to 50% through the entire decomposition process (depends on the composition of feedstock), but gets denser (weighs more per cubic foot), so by the time a pile is harvested, it’s only a bit over 2 cubic yards, but weighs well over one ton. Lots of material to move with a pitchfork and flat shovel. But that’s what I enjoy, and it keeps me fit as I get older. Learning how to compensate for age is important.

I have 7 pads, and usually have 6 piles working in various stages. At an average of 3 yards, my Framed piles account for about 18 yards of compost in process – over 8 tons.
I harvest a pile every 3-5 weeks. Depends. Sometimes on how the fish are biting…

And have other piles working too. For instance my Critter Bin (roadkill, fish carcasses, dead birds, whatever), a cinderblock set with 3/4″ front slats. Don’t want coyotes or other critters getting into that pile. I don’t put roadkill in my regular Frame piles, but I do use all of our kitchen scraps and garden refuse in a new build, and the organic material from the ‘critter’ bin gets into new piles too, as innoculation material. Very rich…

I use the Batch method for all Frame piles, so only add a variety of raw organic material ingredients layered into a NEW pile. Only. I may use some molasses and/or DRY dog food in a 1st turn pile if it needs the stuff to ‘fire up’ again to over 135F, but nothing else gets added to any other turned piles as they age.

I’ll talk about how I go about working my composting later on, but EVERY turn gets properly aerated. I started using a section of galvanized chain-link fence to aerate pile material about 25 years ago, and still do. Framed with 2×4 lumber. Photos of that later…

Because there was little freshwater available for composting, I had to haul rainwater collected from drainage ditches and small holding areas, in 55-gallon barrels to water plants and compost piles. Serious PITA (Pain In The ***. Badly needed a supply of fresh water on the property. Rainwater harvesting was the only long-term option ’cause the water company can’t pipe to our place because of land access restrictions.

For you folks that use chlorinated city water on your compost piles – think about this: Chlorine is designed to kill microbes. It’s very efficient at doing that. So why would anybody put poison on their compost pile, to kill the microbes they are trying so hard to raise? Is it any wonder that some folks are having so much trouble composting?

First question I ask somebody is: what do you water your compost pile with? They don’t say “poison” because they don’t know any better. For goodness sakes, if you use city water to irrigate your plants in the ground, that’s one thing. It does hurt the microbes in the dirt, but because they are in the ground, they will survive. But your compost pile is not just dirt – yet, and it’s not in the ground with underlayers, that the chlorine does not get to, before it is neutralized.

Neutralize. That’s the key word. Either purchase and use an Activated charcoal filter on that particular compost water hose (about $35 and lasts for up to 20,000 gallons) to remove the chlorine in your water – or use an open-top barrel to let the water sit for several days before you use it, or buy an (aquarium) chemical to change chlorine to a non-toxic state for your barrel. Rainwater is best. Buy a rainbarrel to set under a house downspout, raised up on 8″ blocks. Or make a rain collection barrel – I can show/tell you how to do that and there’s plenty of instructions/directions online if I haven’t got around to doing that on this site yet.

In my case, there was no city water near our property, and would not likely be, in my lifetime. Rainwater was my only option, and I needed a LOT of it. Needed 75,000 gallons of it to have a consistent supply based on our local rainfall. I’m a ARCSA rainwater catchment systems professional, so I know how to do that.

I had ‘done my homework’ to design a layout of the entire 2.4 acres in Excel, so had a good to-scale property plan to start with. Knew where the 75,000-gallon pond was to be excavated, but needed a machine to help get that done.

About that time, my nephew-in-law decided to move, and was willing to sell his 45-hp tractor, with backhoe, which we purchased with trailer and 6′ bushhog mower. In my situation (actually ‘homesteading’ a piece of raw property in the ‘boonies’), the tractor/backhoe is essential equipment with construction. Below is a picture of my tractor. A serious maintenance commitment if you use one over 100 hours per year.

picture of my tracto

Below is a shot of the front of he property where the country road turns into our driveway. Had dug the front drainage ditchs and harvested enough compost by then, to make planting soil to install a couple of raised-bed planters. My wife is standing on the rock road.

country road turns into our driveway

And for goodness sakes, if you’re gonna make a planter bed, remember to ask me for some advice before you do that. Some people buy some landscape timbers, make an area and fill it with bags of potting mix or delivered ‘topsoil’ and plant in it. NOT a good thing to do. Think like a plant… What will a plant respond when it’s in too-wet potting media then roots begin to enter into the native soil with no ‘transition zone’? Think about it…

Planters need irrigation regularly, which increases need for a water supply, so I’m ready to ‘get down to business’ with some serious rainwater harvesting. First had to get ditches dug where they were supposed to go – especially around where the house would be constructed. And then culverts installed to access certain areas of the property across the ditches. The entire property being essentially ‘flat’, required grading all the ditches to drain water toward the to-be-excavated rainwater catchment pond. A site-specific design based on elevations is essential.

I’d done a rainwater survey, so knew that the properties on each side of mine would drain into mine with ditches placed appropriately. With all that surface area, one inch of rainfall would provide over 10,000 gallons of pure water into the pond for irrigation and composting. In an hour. And it does.

So began digging the pond. Slow going with that little backhoe, and took shoot-from-the-hip planning, but perseverance prevailed.

The pond photo below shows the first 3/4 of the pond excavated. Needed to excavate the pond in two sections, since I needed rainwater quickly, but could not build the Pumphead underwater. Had to construct a concrete pumphead, because the land is solid clay and very mobile when wet. Got enough rain to fill the pond about half full, not long after the first section was completed. Thereafter had water for compost and irrigating plants onsite.

Then excavated for the concrete PumpHead, designed to keep the fine clay from filling in the pump intake (which can be cleaned). After excavating, then formed and poured the slab, then used ICF (foam panels connected by plastic webbing as permanent forms) in which to pour the 4″ thick concrete walls.

You can barely see my two helpers in the photo below, to give an idea of how large the PumpHead and pond is. Exposed portions of the white foam will receive an acrylic finish after all the backfill is in place around it. Have lots of construction photos in case anybody is interested in how this one was done.

construction photos

Then had to excavate the dam between the two excavations, to release water into the finished pumphead. Photo below shows excavation of the dam almost completed, and Pumphead with pond water in it. In 2010 I plan to introduce talapia fish into the pond, which means I’ll need to install an aerator. Talapia breed every 3-4 weeks, so I’ll have freshwater fishing too!! After a few year the pond will ‘stabilize’ and will be able to support freshwater bass as well.

support freshwater bass

The next period of time was mostly spent building the SafeHouse and then our home, as I continued to make and harvest compost for planting dirt, to construct planters such as the one shown below, and for containers in which to plant veggies (seen in the background).

containers in which to plant veggies

Below is a photo of our containerized veggie garden still in the same place, but now with a makeshift windscreen to protect the plants.

makeshift windscreen

The 20-gallon containers were previously used to feed cattle mineral supplement and purchased at $2 each, a hundred at a time. Drilled holes in the bottom sides for drainage and filled with my ‘veggie dirt’ recipe planting dirt. We get really good harvests in containers, considering very salty, high winds.

Each season I empty the container dirt and remix it in my Mixing Bin with the tractor front loader bucket with fresh compost, with dusting sulfur (if needed to lower pH), more river sand if needed (for efficient drainage), and perhaps with other organic amendments depending on what veggies will be planted in the series of pots for the up-coming season. I usually add a bit more Endo Mycorrhizal as well.

A mixing bin is a time and energy saver when needing to mix quantities of materials, even with a shovel. Many mixing bins are constructed with easy-to-build concrete-filled cinderblock walls, but I needed an even stronger construction, so designed a 7′ solid reinforced concrete bin that would take the force of my hydraulic 6′ tractor front loader bucket.

Have plenty of construction photos if anybody is interested in the design and building of this one.

In this bin I mix initial compost feedstock and planting dirt, two cubic yards at a time. It’s also where I usually do my shredding with the 10-hp Mackissic shredder since it faces the prevailing wind. The two lead-in ‘runways’ are for the tractor tires, so even in a muddy situation, the tractor is stable when lifting/mixing materials.

The next thing I needed were material bins. You will too, but probably a smaller version. I needed 7′ wide bins strong enough to load material from them, with my 6′ tractor front loader bucket.

That calls for concrete-filled cinderblock walls. Easy to construct for one person. Lumber for the slab form, cinderblock, rebar and bagged concrete. And an electric mixer powered by a gas generator. I needed a concrete slab for tractor loading, so poured for a 3-bin section at one time, for adding onto later. Again, I have many construction photos available.

The photo below shows the 3-bin slab poured, with wet-set rebar sticking out of two courses of cinderblock. Three courses of cinderbock to go, to make 48″ high walls.
Stagger-set the cinderblock over the rebar, then when lined-up with a rubber mallet, simply pour the cinderblock cells full of concrete, wet-set the rebar, and done. Very strong.

cells full of concrete

Even before the cinderblock walls were fully set to final height, I began using the bins. In the left and center bins, there is a pile of harvested compost each. In the right bin is a pickup load of horse manure to make another pile.

In the background you can see our 5th wheel trailer on the right, and the SafeHouse has been built. The SafeHouse was our refuge during severe weather and was where our household goods were stored. Now that our home is finished, the SafeHouse is where my compost/tea testing laboratory is located.

organic matter decomposition

Is organic matter decomposition dependent upon C:N ratio?

Answer 1: Organic material (OM) decomposition is almost entirely microbial in nature (pun intended). Both the degree and rate of microbial decomposition of OM is dependent upon diversity of and density of the microbial community that ‘does the work’, which is primarily factored by the environmental conditions within which the microbial community depends – to establish a consistent reproductive rate over time.

Very basically, carbon (for energy) and Nitrogen (amino-protein to build cells) usually expressed as C:N, along with O2 in water are required for aerobic microbial reproduction – requiring a sufficient supply of of all three basic elements (OM; C:N and O2 in moisture) along with other adjunct factors such as availability of other minerals) to act efficiently on OM, So the answer is YES – BUT DEPENDS on the extent that other primary factors are also present (since C:N is not the only primary factor).

Answer 2: Many speak of C:N as a static issue – but it is not. C:N is a DYNAMIC component of the organic material (OM) decomposition process – constantly changing naturally, due to changing environmental factors. But the point is: C:N is a component that is easily adjusted “on the fly”.

Consideration of the C:N ratio in the field is pure ‘guesswork’ – only ‘definable’ in a laboratory – hence a value-judgement issue. Both nitrogen (in the form of amino acid proteins) and carbon (usually in the form of simple sugars) used by the microbial community to reproduce, can be inoculated in liquid form to alter the C:N to more favorable microbial reproductive conditions – hence attaining a faster decomposition rate.

Also adding additional LIVE aerobic microbes to feedstocks via liquid solution (i.e., compost tea or Liquid Microbial Concentrate [LMC]) – to increase saprophytic activity – is also quite simple. Therefore compostable material which might take 6-9+ MONTHS to process through the stable/finished/mature stages in a given environment (capable of beginning efficient nutrient cycling to plants and initiating effective disease/pest control) can easily be significantly time-decreased by altering the INTERNAL composting environment.

Composting is a man-contrived process that simply speeds-up the natural biological processes of nature.. It is not unusual for an experienced composter – using scientific methods – to produce high-quality MATURE compost – from RAW materials – in 8-12 weeks – depending on how well feedstocks are processed and the decomposition rate controlled.

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Carlos Warren

Growing up in Texas, I was fascinated by the world of science and invention, thanks in large part to my father's work at Dow Chemical Company. However, my true passion lay in the natural world, and I became an expert in organic gardening and composting at a young age. I spent hours studying the microbiological communities in our family garden, using a microscope to define the quality of the soil. My love for farming and gardening led me to explore new techniques and methods, constantly pushing the boundaries of what was possible.