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Composting: A Crucial Component of Sustainable Gardening

Fall Composting – Turning Garden Debris into Garden Gold

Here in Oregon, we are just reaching that time of the year when the rain starts falling on a regular basis, the temperatures are dropping, and the notion of staying indoors seems much more enticing. It is also the time of the year when our gardens do some hibernating of their own (that is if there are not winter crops in them). One part of the garden that can stay very active during the winter, despite how dreary and cold it can get outside is a compost pile. And the good news is that after some initial work on a compost pile, you are free to sip hot chocolate by a fire while browsing through your new, Spring 2011 Catalog!

There are several ways of making rich garden compost. Some of these methods can be more beneficial than others. For example, it is one thing to add organic matter into your soil. It is another to add nutrient-rich organic matter with a high amount of beneficial bacteria and fungi, thus improving the overall health of the soil and creating a better ecosystem in which to grow plants. The purpose of this article is to show you how to create compost that will be most beneficial for your garden.

How to Tell when Compost is Ready

How do you know when your organic compost in your compost bin is ready to be used as fertilizer for plants in your garden?

Getting Started


The first things that you need for a compost pile are ingredients. For compost that will be applied to a vegetable garden, it is most beneficial to have a high amount of bacteria with a moderate amount of fungi. How can this be accomplished? Just follow this simple recipe:

  • 25% High Nitrogen Materials (legumes or manure)
  • 45% Green Materials (debris that still contains chlorophyll or food scraps)
  • 30% Dry, Woody Materials (debris that is brown and dead)

The next step is to find a place to put your compost pile. Many compost “recipes” say that the optimum size for a pile is 4 ft X 4 ft X 4ft. For the recipe that we are using today, 3 feet should be the maximum height but the width and length can be up to 4 feet. Putting your pile in a location out of reach of animals is definitely recommended. Building or purchasing a bin is a very effective way of containing your compost.

Making the Pile

Once you have designated a spot and acquired materials, it is time to get down to business. For best results, stack materials in layers that are 2-4 inches high. Begin with a layer of green materials, then dry materials, and finally the high nitrogen materials. Since the “compost recipe” calls for different  soil components (4 main components of soil – i.e. green vs. brown vs. high nitrogen), you can adjust the height of the layers accordingly. For example, try making the green material layers 4 inches high, the brown material layers 3 inches high, and the high nitrogen layers 2 inches high. Repeat the layering process until the pile is 3 feet tall.

Maintaining the Pile

Once your pile has been built, the next step is to wait until the pile gets to at least 135°F. Ideally, this should occur within 24-72 hours after the pile has been constructed. The magic temperature at which weed seeds, human pathogens, plant pathogens, and root feeding nematodes will die (interestingly enough, beneficial nematodes tend to withstand higher temperatures than “pest” nematodes) is 135°F. This temperature must be maintained for at least 3 days in order to assure elimination of the unwanted components. In a perfect world, your compost pile would reach 135°F. for three days and then the temperature would start to drop. Unfortunately, we do not always live in a perfect world and often times your compost pile will not reach this temperature or it will get too hot.

What do you do if your pile does not reach 135°F.? If this occurs, chances are there is not enough nitrogen in your pile. Simply mix in more legumes or manure into your pile. If the temperature still does not rise to 135°F., there might be a large amount of pesticide residue, heavy metals or petroleum products in your pile. At this point it would be best to contact your local extension agency to find out some ways of eliminating these materials.

What do you do if your pile gets too hot? At temperatures above 155°F., you can kill the beneficial microorganisms in your compost. Too low a temperature means that there is not enough nitrogen, and we can assume that too high of a temperature means that there is too much nitrogen. The way to reduce the temperature is to add more oxygen to the pile. Simply turn your pile with a digging fork or shovel and this should be adequate enough to lower the temperature of your pile. In extreme cases, watering the pile will also reduce the temperature.

Once your pile has reached a temperature of 135°F. for 3 days, it is time to turn your pile (just like you would if it were too hot). When turned, the temperature will drop to the surrounding outdoor conditions. Your pile will then rise in temperature, just like it did before, however this time it will not get as hot. When the pile reaches a certain temperature and does not rise any more, it is then time to turn your pile once again. For the first week it may be necessary to turn your pile on a daily basis. After that every few days should be sufficient. You will continue this process of turning, letting the temperature rise, and turning again until your compost pile maintains normal surrounding temperatures. It is at this point that your garden debris has turned into usable compost, rich in beneficial microorganisms! This whole process can actually be completed within a month. However, if your compost is left to sit once the temperature does not rise any more, the diversity of beneficial microorganisms will increase over time. The maximum amount of diversity will usually occur after a 6-month period, however the compost can be used at any time after the temperature no longer rises after being turned.

Products for All of Your Composting Needs

Compost Thermometer: You may have noticed that the above mentioned composting process involves a lot of temperature monitoring. Choose one that is made of corrosion-resistant, stainless steel which reaches a full 20 inches into your compost pile and features a 1 1/2 inch dial meter with a range of 0-220°F.

Compost Aerator: Get the benefits of turning compost without a shovel or pitch fork. This 36 inch professional-quality tool reaches deep into the interior of your compost pile. When withdrawn, the heavy-duty hinged blades open to pull material out and create a new air passage into the pile. Plastic grip handles on quality steel construction. Comes with a lifetime guarantee.

Compost-Plus Compost Maker: Compost Plus contains a blend of microorganisms which break down yard waste as well as a nutrient energy source for a fast decomposition start. When used as directed you can turn lawn clippings, brown leaves, wood chips, pinecones, and twigs into rich moist humus. A 2-pound box will convert 500-750 pounds of debris into mulch.