Compost – bins and tips

Compost Bins

Compost can be made in a variety of containers. The examples below show a double bin made from recycled timber, a double bin made from recycled, heavy gauge bird wire covered with knitted polypropylene shadecloth, and a commercial single bin. Double or triple bins are best as you can turn the compost from one bin into the next, with the third bin used to start a new heap.
dblcompost compostbins2
Compost tumblers (below, right) do the work of aerating the mixture. They are suitable for composting small quantities of fairly soft ingredients quickly, for people who are not able to turn compost easily, but the mixture may not generate enough heat to kill diseases.
SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503 SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503
Homemade containers don’t require skilled carpentry. What goes into the compost container is more important than how it looks. The main points to remember in deciding on the size and site of your compost container are:

  • When ingredients form one cubic metre (i.e. 1 m. x 1 m. x 1 m.), aerobic bacteria will generate enough heat to kill diseases and weed seeds.
  • Open-base bins that are in contact with soil allow earthworms to enter the mixture (when it has cooled down) and provide worm castings to the mixture while they help complete the composting process.
  • Recommendations to position compost bins in full sun do not apply to many parts of Australia, as too much heat can kill off composting organisms. A shaded spot is ideal.
  • Compost bins need a cover to prevent the ingredients becoming sodden in heavy rain.

Some Composting Tips

If you are new to compost making, don’t be intimidated by statements of the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in compost making. Most recommended ingredients contain a mixture of both. With a little practice, you will quickly learn to identify and correct any imbalances.

  • Chop up tough items using shears, a shredder, or a sharp spade (spread items on soil or grass first to prevent jolting). This assists faster decomposition as bacteria work on the surfaces of organic waste. The more surfaces you can provide – the faster they can work.
  • The secret to making compost quickly to turn it regularly to keep it aerated, and to keep it damp as aerobic bacteria that commence the process require nitrogen, air and moisture to process the carbon.
  • The secret to fast composting is regular turning and mixing of the ingredients. Weekly turning while the ingredients are generating heat will produce mature compost very quickly. As the compost breaks down, the mass is reduced.
  • You don’t have to wait until you have a cubic metre of ingredients – turning and mixing ingredients will get the bacteria working.
  • If the pile looks grey or contains ants – it is too dry. Turn and mix the ingredients, while adding enough water to dampen the mixture.
  • Don’t be concerned about slaters in your compost heap. They feed on semi-decomposed organic matter.
  • If the pile is black with an unpleasant smell – it is over-wet. Air has been forced out, and anaerobic composting has begun. Turn and mix the ingredients, while dusting with agricultural lime every 15 cm, and adding some straw to the mix. Protect pile from rain.
  • If the pile seems inactive – it may need more nitrogen. Turn and mix the ingredients, while adding some manure every 20 cm. If manures are unavailable, you can substitute a generous sprinkling of poultry-based, organic-allowed fertiliser.
  • Your compost is ready when it is dark brown, crumbly, with a pleasant earthy smell and ingredients, apart from pieces of egg shell, are no longer recognisable. A 5 cm layer added to topsoil provides your garden with all the minerals that plants, animals and humans need for good health.

Compost materials

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Compost is made by combining organic waste than provides nitrogen and/or carbon. The advice to make compost from waste that is green (provides nitrogen) and brown (provides carbon) is a bit confusing when manure contains a lot of nitrogen, but most of it is brown. When suitable dampened materials are combined in a heap that has contact with the soil, heat is generated and millions of aerobic bacteria get to work transforming the fuel into a compost-making factory.

Good Fuels

  • Manure from animals that eat grass (lots of nitrogen)
  • Chicken manure (lots of nitrogen)
  • Weeds without seed heads (nitrogen and carbon)
  • Lawn cuttings that have wilted (nitrogen and carbon)
  • Green prunings – shredded (nitrogen and carbon)
  • Raw vegetables and fruit – chopped for fast break down (nitrogen and carbon)
  • Uncooked kitchen waste – including tea bags and coffee grounds (nitrogen and carbon)
  • Old plants – chopped for fast break down (nitrogen and carbon)
  • Bedding straw for animals that eat grass or seeds (lots of nitrogen and carbon)
  • Straw and hay (lots of carbon)
  • Cardboard boxes and egg cartons – shredded (carbon)
  • Undyed wool, feathers and hair (nitrogen and carbon)

In Small Amounts

  • Newspaper and waste paper – separate sheets crumpled or roughly shredded (carbon)
  • Woody prunings – shredded (carbon)
  • Wood shavings – (very slow to break down and tie up a lot of nitrogen)
  • Seaweed – well-washed (helps factory work faster)
  • Herbs – comfrey, yarrow and chamomile (help factory work faster)
  • Egg shells – crumbled (keep compost smelling sweet and earthy)

Do Not Add

  • Plastic or foil containers, wrapping or disposable nappies
  • Fruit or vegetables that have been attacked by fruit fly or codling moth (larvae can pupate in factory)
  • Plants with diseases
  • Cat, dog or human faeces* (these can spread diseases through compost)
  • Rats or mice* (can spread diseases through compost)
  • Grey water (upsets pH balance and slows process)
  • Soil – makes compost heavy and harder to turn (amount clinging to weed roots is sufficient)
  • Earthworms – the initial heat will kill them. Earthworms know when to move into a compost factory.
  • Synthetic fertilisers (delays process and deters earthworms)

If you only have small quantities of organic waste to recycle, a worm farm would be a better solution. See Compost Worm Farm.
For information on how compost makes garden soil healthy, see Compost.
** Cat and dog faeces, and vermin, can be composted anaerobically in a small pit or container, but this compost should not be added to garden beds.

Compost

compostbins2 Composting recycles organic waste into a product that makes garden soil healthy. Mature compost is a dark brown, sweet-smelling material that can be added to topsoil.
There are two ways to make compost – aerobic, which requires aeration during the process, and anaerobic, which is a slow, rather smelly process. Mature aerobic compost can be produced in about 6–8 weeks in most areas of Australia.

How does compost make garden soil healthy?

  • Compost keeps soil more moisture-retentive, yet better-drained.
  • Compost provides food for earthworms that increase the depth of fertile topsoil by leaving digested food along their deep tunnels.
  • Compost provides food and a home for the many helpful bacteria and fungi that help protect soil from soil-borne diseases.
  • Well made compost has a pH of 6.5 – where all plant nutrients are fully available, and the perfect pH for the majority of plants.
  • Compost buffers plant roots from an unsuitable pH in surrounding soil.
  • It also insulates plant roots from temperature extremes so that soil stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  • Compost contains all the minerals that plants, animals and humans need for good health, most of the soil’s nitrogen, plus lots of humus that forms the most stable part of recycled organic waste.
  • Humus and the minerals that plants need both carry a weak electrical charge. The electric charge holds the plant food minerals close to plant roots and prevents them from washing away in heavy rain.
  • Humus is able to control the release of trace elements needed in tiny amounts, and block absorption of poisonous metals in soil so that they do not end up in our food.
  • Humus stores carbon in soil for very long periods of time.
  • Humus, in compost, provides a habitat for a soil community of billions of beneficial bacteria and fungi that perform important functions.
  • Some bacteria species in humus make a ‘glue’ that is able to hold soil particles in a way that improves the flow of water and air through soil. This improves the structure of soil so that plant roots grow more easily. Strong roots help plants to resist the effects of drought and storms.
  • Mycorrhiza fungi in humus stick like hairs to the roots of plants, helping them absorb water and nutrients in exchange for sugars produced by plants during photosynthesis. Some 95% of perennial plants rely on mycorrhiza for healthy growth.

Compost worm farms

compworms.jpg For organic gardeners who don’t have enough recyclable waste for a productive compost heap, a compost worm farm is the answer.

Compost worms are different from earthworms that tunnel through soil and move into compost heaps after organic matter has been partly processed by microorganisms. Consequently, the term ‘compost worms’ can be confusing to new gardeners. Worm farm (compost) worms require a moister and cooler environment than earthworms (10–30° C.), and feed on a wide range of organic matter, including vegetable and fruit waste (except for citrus and onions), wet paper and cardboard, grass clippings, aged cow and horse manure, soft weeds and hair. Chopping waste into small pieces provides a larger surface area for worms to feed on and speeds up production. The digested waste (worm castings) are a clay-like humus that contains all the nutrients and trace elements that plants need for good health in a form that plant roots can absorb immediately.

Worm castings are Nature’s slow-release, complete organic fertiliser. The more varied the worms’ diet, the better the fertiliser. Simply rake the worm castings into the topsoil on garden beds. As they do not smell, they are the perfect fertiliser for both indoor and outdoor pot plants. They are also a great addition to seedling mixes and, when diluted to very weak black tea strength, the liquid that drains from the worm farm is a fertiliser that gets seedlings off to a flying start.
Worm farming has become a very popular method of recycling and various commercial worm farms are available to suit different situations. Most children find worm farms fascinating and enjoy looking after them.

  • Commercial worm farms come with complete instructions, a starter colony of worms and edible bedding for the worms. Small commercial farms with several tiers are easily moved into a shed or garage in areas where frosts occur. Or, in frost-free areas, if you can find an old hip bath or large sink, you can make your own worm farm as we have here. Worm farming
  • Containers with a drainage hole prevent moisture build up in the base of the farm and a waterproof cover excludes light and rain. (Avoid using old carpet or underlay as a cover as these are impregnated with pesticides.)
  • Add a little water to the farm when necessary to keep the food and bedding damp.
  • A light dusting of dolomite every few weeks will keep the worm farm smelling sweet and the pH close to perfect.

HARVESTING WORM CASTINGS
Worms in farms with stacked trays will move up into the next highest layer when all the food in their tray has been eaten, and it is time to collect the worm castings.
Uncover the worm farm and leave the surface exposed for 15-20 minutes. The worms will move down through the castings away from the light. The castings will contain worm eggs. These are easily recognised as you can see in the photo. They are about the size of the head of a match, or a little bit smaller. Worms don’t lay their eggs in groups like some insects do. They lay them one at a time through the worm castings, but usually close to where they can find food when they hatch.
Harvestcastings1 Use a scoop to collect a layer of castings from the top of the farm. A scoop can be made from a 2 litre juice bottle with a handle. Spread the castings onto an old tray by lightly brushing the castings with gloved hands. Check for worm eggs and any small worms that might still be in the castings and put them safely back into the farm. Cover them with a layer of food.
Then tip the collected worm castings into a bucket and collect another scoop full of castings until you have enough to put into your garden bed, or to make ‘worm tea’.

What’s soil pH?

Soil pH is the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of soil from an extremely acid pH of 0 to an extremely alkaline pH of 14. A soil pH of 7 is neutral, neither acid not alkaline. Knowing the pH of your garden soil is important because soil pH controls the availability of nutrients and the number of microorganisms that improve soil structure. Plants can only absorb nutrients as electrically charged “ions” that attach themselves to clay and organic matter ions with the opposite electrical charge. Depending on the level of acidity or alkalinity of soil, varying amounts of different nutrients can be taken up by plant roots. At some pH levels, nutrients can become bound to other elements, or to soil, and become “locked out” and unavailable to plants. All the major nutrients are only freely available to plants within a narrow soil pH range of 6.5 to 7.5, where essential trace elements are also available, and aluminium is locked out. (See pH Table below) Most vegetables and exotics will remain healthy if grown in a pH range of 6.0–7.0, but potatoes and strawberries do best when pH is around 5.5, and Brassicas and beetroot require a pH close to neutral. However, few plants will survive when the soil pH is below 4.5 where major nutrients are strictly limited and trace elements become available in toxic quantities, or above 9.0 where calcium becomes insoluble.
On the pH scale, the “p” stands for potential, and “H” is the chemical symbol for hydrogen. The more acid your soil is, the more hydrogen ions in your soil. As hydrogen ions are replaced by calcium ions on the charged sites, soil pH rises. Just to make it confusing, the pH scale is shown as a negative logarithm so that the more hydrogen ions in topsoil, the lower the pH number. Because soil pH is expressed as a logarithm, a pH of 6.0 is ten times more acid than a pH of 7.0, and a pH of 5.0 is a hundred times more acid than 7.0. Adjusting pH without the buffering effect of decomposed organic matter is difficult.
The only way to find the exact pH of garden soil is to test it. Test kits for this purpose are available at most large nursery and hardware stores for around twenty dollars, or so. The Manutec Test Kit is quite economical to use, and Bunnings are selling them, at the moment, for $15.50. Testing involves taking samples of topsoil from across the growing area, and mixing them thoroughly in a bucket. A small sample of the mixture is placed on a supplied sheet and moistened with a liquid dye. The damp mixture is then dusted with barium sulphate, and the resulting colour matched to a pH range on the kit’s colour chart (–see image below).
***All garden soils should be tested at least annually, because exudates from plant roots and the decomposition of organic matter release hydrogen ions into the soil, replacing calcium ions and increasing acidity.

pHtable.jpgpHkit.jpg
Black sections show level of availability to plants.

Changing soil pH

If the pH of garden beds needs adjusting, organic gardeners have a distinct advantage over “chemical” gardeners, because mature compost has a pH of about 6.5 where all the major nutrients are freely available to plants, essential trace elements are available, and aluminium is locked out. Adding mature compost to topsoil when preparing beds will help to lower pH of alkaline soils, and raise the pH of more acid soils, as well as buffering plant roots from an unsuitable pH in surrounding soil. Where the amount of mature compost is limited, green manures and well-rotted manures will break down to add nutrients, microorganisms and humus to topsoil. Worm castings and other solid organic fertilisers provide nutrients in easily absorbed form. Garden beds should be prepared a month before planting to allow soil chemistry to achieve a balance.

To raise soil pH
In all acid soils, pH can be raised by the combined use of organic matter and the addition of calcium ions in the form of dolomite or lime.
Agricultural lime – (Calcium carbonate) is finely ground limestone (chalk). Mined limestone, i.e. not chemically treated, is a safe choice to raise pH in garden beds. Although it takes several weeks to have an effect, it is longer acting than other sources of lime, and can be watered in around plants. Agricultural lime can be worked into the top 15 cm of soil when preparing garden beds. It takes less lime to raise the pH of sandy soils than it does to change clay soils. To avoid an excess amount of calcium in soil, apply as recommended in the test kit, and test soil a month later.
I must say here that I have not found the application rate recommended by Manutec for “organic soils” to be accurate, if soils contain compost. It may have been calculated for soils where only manures are added.
Dolomite – (Calcium magnesium carbonate) is limestone with a higher proportion of magnesium than agricultural lime, and is applied in the same way. It is a good way to raise soil pH on sandy soils with fairly low organic matter content because both calcium and magnesium leach easily from these soils. In soils with high magnesium content, such as in South East Queensland, agricultural lime is the preferred way to raise soil pH.
Quick lime – (Calcium oxide) is made by heating limestone in a furnace to remove carbon dioxide. It is very caustic and unsuitable for garden use.
Hydrated or slaked lime – (Calcium hydroxide) is also known as brickies or builders’ lime because it is used to harden mortar. Hydrated lime is made by soaking quick lime in water to form hydroxides. It is more soluble and faster acting than agricultural lime, but its effects do not last as long. This lime can burn roots and should not be used on beds that contain plants. It should also be applied a month before organic matter and fertilisers or nitrogen can be lost through conversion to ammonia. Gloves and a mask should be worn when applying hydrated lime because it is very drying to skin and throat. Apply hydrated lime to the soil surface, and water it in.

To lower soil pH
Adding organic matter as compost, green manures, and animal manures, without including lime or dolomite, can be enough to adjust the pH of slightly alkaline soils because organic matter produces hydrogen ions as it decomposes.
Manure from cows, horses and sheep that have grazed on herbicide-free pasture can be used more liberally on alkaline soils. It has been calculated that 2–3 kilos of manure per square metre of bed area will reduce soil pH from 8.0 to 7.0. Manures release hydrogen ions as they break down, replacing calcium ions on the charged sites.
Elemental sulphur, sometimes sold as flowers of sulphur, will assist organic matter in reducing soil pH in more alkaline soils. Elemental sulphur is available from produce stores, and some nurseries. For soils with a sandy structure, apply at 35 g per square metre, or 100g per square metre for clay soils. Test soil after one month, to see if further applications are necessary.
Please note – Lime sulphur is a fungicide, not a soil conditioner.
Acidic fertiliser can assist when alkaline topsoil contains some organic matter and herbicide-free manures are not available. Multicrop’s Ecofish liquid fertiliser is registered by NASAA as an input for organic cultivation. The concentrate is very acidic and diluting it in water should modify the acidity, somewhat. It can be watered into the soil or used as a foliar feed for plants in alkaline soils.