I have seen many lists of what is and is not ok to compost. I have an easier way to remember: compost everything. My first farming mentor once composted a gallon of motor oil and three months later there wasn’t a trace of it left! I composted an entire whole pig, and three months later I only found one jaw bone. One bone! Ok, let me explain about the pig…terrible neighborhood dogs killed him in the night. I didn’t find him until the morning, so I was unable to harvest the meat. It was a sad, tragic time, but it did turn into a fascinating composting lesson.
In case you find yourself with a body to dispose of, you should know that it was a very big compost pile, the most ambitious compost pile I ever made, and it measured about 4 by 4 by 16 feet. I dug a hole in the center of the pile, lovingly placed my pig there, and covered him back up with compost. It’s important to cover anything smelly very well with the compost and to bury it deeply. The microbes in the compost will get to work right away and keep the terrible neighborhood dogs from sniffing out and digging up your compost.
But let’s get back to the beginning. How do you start a powerful compost pile?
1. Start by gathering plenty of brown carbon-rich materials–dried leaves, newspapers, paper towels, dry weeds, straw, hay. Keep a nice pile of these ready to go at all times.
2. Get a wheelbarrow-full of green, nitrogen-rich materials–animal manures of any kind, fresh weeds from your garden, seaweed, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds. Weeds from the garden, or refuse from your vegetables, like carrot tops, are the best because they are full of the minerals that plants need.
Build your pile
If you can, choose a spot in the shade. If you don’t have shade, you can throw a piece of shade cloth on top when you’re done.
1. Using a pitchfork, or your hands, grab brown materials and spread them in a big, nice, neat square, at least 4 by 4 feet. The neater the better! This layer could be about six inches deep.
2. Now sprinkle your green materials on top. This layer should be less thick, maybe about two inches deep. Use your pitchfork or your hands to go around the edge and make it nice and straight. These are your foundation layers, and they will affect the neatness of the entire pile.
3. Spread another layer of brown on top and arrange the edges nice and neat.
If you have more green, nitrogen rich materials in your wheelbarrow, throw another layer on the pile, and keep layering until you are out of green. I always like to end on brown. Remember to keep arranging your edges!
4. Water thoroughly. If you have a sprinkler, set it up on your pile for an hour. Water at least once a week to keep the pile from drying out.
Come back and check your pile in three days. Stick your hand into the center and it should feel really hot! That means you have lots of microbial activity, which is a good thing because they are what breaks down the minerals into a form your plants can use. A mineral and nutrient rich soil that has no microbial life will be useless to plants.
Maintain your pile
As you weed your garden, or mow your lawn, or come across more green materials, bring them to your compost pile and spread another thin layer. Cover with brown carbon-rich materials and water. If you just have a little bucket of kitchen waste, dig a small hole in the pile and bury your materials there.
Here you can see two piles side by side, one with brown as the top layer, and one with green. Keep the top flat so that water doesn’t run off when you water.
If you want to speed up the process, wait a month or two and turn the entire pile. You’ll see the pile get smaller and smaller as it breaks down. When it is about half its original height, you can start using it in the garden. Use a screen and a shovel to sift out the big parts. I always throw those in the next pile. You can also use it unsifted as mulch!