Making the most of Compost

Posted: Sunday, June 05, 2005


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  Jon Little scoops dog droppings from his kennel in Kasilof. He combines the waste with straw and composts it for rose bushes. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Bree Little fills a compost bin with grass clippings while doing yard work. She and her husband Jon try to compost as much waste as they can for use in flower and vegetable gardens at their home in Kasilof.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

To the misinformed, backyard composting can seem like a rotten time, but to those in the know, it can be an easy way of turning garbage into gold — black gold, that is, since the end result is real pay dirt.

Images may initially come to mind of a smelly heap made of putrefying pieces of meat with flies buzzing over it, but this is not the case.

When done properly, backyard composting involves no stink or flies and most kitchen waste is welcome.

Composting involves using warm temperature organisms for rapid decomposition to convert organic home waste into humus in a matter of months, rather than years.


Mueller inserts a thermometer into one of his compost bins. He said the compost reaches 150 degrees at times.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It's a great way to make a product you can use out of something that would just get hauled off to the landfill. It's natural recycling," said Meg Mueller, a district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Kenai.

"It's a great soil amendment for gardening, especially in this part of Alaska where the topsoil is so silty," Mueller said.

Compost works as a soil conditioner by storing nutrients and releasing them slowly. This not only protects against soil erosion but also prevents leaching of nutrients from the plant root zone.


Marcus Mueller empties one of his family's compost bins so that he can turn over the grass clippings inside.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Compost improves aeration, helps soil retain water and can attract earthworms and other beneficial creatures which add their own nutrients to soil.

As opposed to chemical fertilizers which are highly soluble and may wash away early in the growing season, compost is not particularly soluble and releases its nutrients steadily over many months.

Backyard composting is a simple process that can fit a variety of individual lifestyles, incomes, yard sizes and overall ambitions.

Location, location, location


Jon Little scoops dog droppings from his kennel in Kasilof. He combines the waste with straw and composts it for rose bushes.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Composting begins with good site selection," Mueller said.

Piles can be built just about anywhere but a little forethought can greatly increase the rate of decay.

"Select sites that are in a level, well-drained area that gets heat from the sun. It should be a convenient area, since it will be frequently accessed but it should also be out of the way where you don't have to look at it," Mueller said.

Many people opt to place piles close to source materials, such as near the back of the house if frequently composting kitchen scraps. The pile may also be near where the compost will be eventually be used, such as close to a garden or flower beds.

Water works

Backyard compost piles need occasional wetting, too, so they should be in close proximity to a hose or other water source.

"It may need to be wet occasionally, but if it's raining regularly it's usually not necessary," Mueller said.

A handful of material from the pile should feel like a wrung-out sponge. If not, add water but don't overdo it.

Underwatering can cause slow decomposition, while a pile sitting in standing water can cause odors.

Heavy rain may make the pile too wet, in which case it may be necessary to cover it with some clear plastic or other material for a few weeks to allow it to dry out a bit.

Mueller recommends being mindful of leaching, as well. Compost pile locations near or over wells, especially shallow hand-dug ones, are not advisable.

"Water will move through the pile and can leach into the groundwater," she said.

Getting started

Piles are the preferred method for backyard composting in Alaska, as opposed to utilizing tight wooden or cement boxes or pit methods, as are typically used in warmer climates.

The box methods will typically retain water in the bottom that freezes in winter and may not completely thaw during mild Alaska summers. Pits are equally impractical since cold subsurface soil temperatures inhibit the decomposition process.

"The next step is to decide what kind of bin to make," Mueller said.

Bins are frequently employed to keep piles neat and avoid the negative effects of wind and weather. They also help maintain moisture and the elevated temperatures necessary to compost efficiently.

"Bins can range from the extravagant to the simple," Mueller said.

Available at home centers, plant nurseries and over the Internet, there are bins that vary in size from giant molded plastic monstrosities big enough for a farm to units no larger than a 5-gallon bucket.

Some even come with elaborate frames with ornamental decorations or include special features such as a hamster wheel-like tumbling mechanism for easy turning.

For those more modest in their backyard composting ventures, a simple hoop of hardware cloth or heavy wire screen will work.

"The ends just need to be zip-tied or fastened together somehow to maintain the desired shape and size," Mueller said.

Visqueen or plastic also can be used around the inside of the hardware cloth, if so desired.

Whether building or buying a bin, Mueller said size is a factor.

"Base it on how much material you'll have to compost," she said.

The minimum size should be 3 feet long by 3 feet wide and 3 to 5 feet high. This basic dimension will allow for the proper aeration, moisture and temperature to be maintained.

More than one pile can be made if the amount of organic waste that accumulates is more than one pile can handle.

"It's not uncommon for some folks that are really intensive in their composting to have two, three or more piles going at a time, all in different stages of decomposition.

"One may still be getting built up and added to regularly, while the other piles are in the turning stages," Mueller said.

Piling it on

The next step is the piling process and, just like building the foundation of a house or other structure, the base layer should be kept neat and preferably uniform.

"The first layer is a buffer layer and should be 3 to 6 inches deep," Mueller said.

This layer is typically made up of course materials, such as stalks from sunflowers. Tall weeds also will work, as will sawdust or grass clippings.

"This buffer material should be absorbent to soak up leaching water," Mueller added.

This buffer layer also will aid in a uniform breakdown and will make further piling easier down the road.

"The second layer is where organic waste and other materials get added as they come available. Ideally, you want a combination of greens and browns, not all of one and none of the other," Mueller said.

Greens and browns, also sometimes called stinking things and burnable things, is a lay description for the balance between nitrogen and carbon, which is optimal when it is 1 part nitrogen to 20 to 30 parts carbon.

Green materials typical include fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, nut shells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, animal manure and grass clipping, leaves and garden trimmings that are still green and wet.

Brown materials include straw, hay, shredded newspaper, stale bread and dried grass clippings and yard waste.

These materials can also be chopped or shredded to increase the surface area available to microorganisms, since backyard composting is in essence bacteria farming.

If small livestock are kept, they can make a valuable contribution to the backyard composting process. Placing a bin under a rabbit hutch or chicken coop will allow their manure to pile up, which can be added to the compost pile.

Alternating 4- to 6-inch thick layers of green and brown materials is suitable to build up a pile for most backyard composting needs. However, some people add an additional layers.

One of these additional layers can be made up of a light sprinkling of commercial fertilizer to speed up the decomposition process by adding nitrogen. Some also prefer to use a fine layer of good garden loam, believing that this adds microorganisms to the pile.

Regardless of how many layers are added, it is wise to try and end with a layer of brown material.

Composting typically isn't a stinky process, but if incorporating chicken stool or some other manures, there can be a slight odor.

"A layer of leaves on top will act as a natural carbon filter to keep down any smell," Mueller said.


in Alaska

Composting in Alaska is a little different than in the Lower 48, so there are a few factors to be aware of.

"Try to keep the pile out from under spruce trees," Mueller said.

Spruce needles, like pine needles, are high in carbon and can offset the natural balance of the pile and dramatically slow down the decomposition process.

In the Lower 48, fish waste, meat scraps, bones, fat and grease also are commonly included in the backyard compost pile, but in Alaska this can be dangerous.

"People should stay away from fish and meat composting. The potential to lure in a bear is high, and so I don't think it's worth the risk to compost those items here," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Manager Jeff Selinger.

When done properly, composting puts out little to no odor, but Selinger still suggests backyard composters consider securing their pile with an electric fence perimeter.

"It's part of behaving responsibly in the area we live and can minimize any potential problems from bears for composters and their neighbors," Selinger said.

"It may be a little more work and expense in the short run, but it's safer in the long run," he added.

Watch and wait

Once the pile is properly built to capacity, then begins the monitoring process.

"This is done with a compost thermometer. They are long —18 inches or more — to reach the center of the pile, and they commonly go up to 200 degrees or more because these piles can really cook," Mueller said.

The temperature of the pile depends on several factors, but the desired range is 120 to 160 degrees. These temperatures are great because they not only kill pathogens in the organic waste but kill weed seeds, as well.

Piles can become this hot anywhere from one day up to seven days later. Temperature can be monitored as actively as desired from daily to weekly for an active composter or biweekly to monthly for less active folks.

"Temperatures will rise with decomposition, then plateau, then begin to come down. When they start to drop, that's when it's time to turn the pile," Mueller said.

Turning helps make the compost a more uniform consistency and should be done by bringing all the outside pile materials to the inside of the pile and vice versa, with the use of a shovel or pitchfork.

"Turning the pile stimulates the microbes and gives them connections to new food," Mueller said.

It is typically performed anywhere from every week to every few weeks or as seldom as a few times a year, but the decomposition process will be extremely slow if infrequently turned.

Once the pile cools down even after being repeatedly turned, it is finished composting. The end result is a decomposed, dark, crumbly, organic material that is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus potassium and secondary trace elements.

"Then it's time to pull the hardware cloth and start a new pile," Mueller said. "It's simple, compost works year-round and really anybody can do it."

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