Composting is a natural biochemical process of decomposition. It is possible for every vegan organic grower to produce the darkest, nutrient-rich, earth-smelling compost. Well-made compost is the building block from which your vegan garden will grow. The soil and humus that are created from your scraps are also essential to revitalizing your garden and providing your household and garden plants with the nutrients they need to thrive.
Building your own basic compost pile is simple to do. All you need is ‘green’ (nitrogen-rich) and ‘brown’ (carbon-rich) material from your yard waste and household food scraps, and a good place to put it. The golden rule of composting is ingredients of 2 parts ‘green’ and 1 part ‘brown’ in the presence of air and moisture. Too much green (nitrogen) and your compost will become green, slimy and probably smelly. Too much brown (carbon) and you’re going to get just that, a pile of brown twigs and plant stalks that take too long to break down.
1. Compost Ingredients
Green (nitrogen-rich, lush and fresh):
Leftover fruits and veggies from the garden, vegetable and fruit peelings, crop residues/foliage, grass cuttings, flowers and cuttings, weeds (without seeds and chopped if needed to prevent re-growth), green plant cuttings, coffee grounds, young hedge trimmings, seaweed and kelp.
Brown (carbon-rich, dry and stemmy):
Dry leaves, hay and straw, dried grass, cornstalks, cobs and other plant stems (chopped finely or shredded), bits of wood and pruning, wood ash (completely cooled), tea bags, peat moss, coffee filters, stems, pine needles (in small quantities, as they are very acidic).
Autumn leaves, perennial weeds, annual weeds in seed, cooked food (unless it is entirely vegan but may still attract rodents), twigs, sawdust (carbon ratio too high).
Animal products: Cheese, meat, eggs. Animal products can attract other animals, smell unpleasantly and introduce disease and unwanted bacteria into your compost pile.
2. Shredding or Chopping Large Items
If you’re throwing half a watermelon rind or large twigs and branches into the compost pile, you’re going to be waiting a long time before you can use the compost. If you can afford to purchase a shredder for woody items it will help solve this issue, but if not, simply chopping up the larger pieces before adding them to the pile will help. Pruning shears work well on harder items. The more you shred or chop the larger and harder items going into your compost, the easier it will be for the beneficial microbes in your compost to break them down and keep moisture even throughout the pile.
3. Heating the Heap
To get a good heat you need to create a 2-meter³ (or 6.5-feet³) compost heap. Materials should be stockpiled until there are enough ‘green’ and ‘brown’. If done correctly, a pile will heat to high temperatures within three days. If it doesn’t, the heap is either: 1) too wet and you will need to spread the materials out to dry; or 2) too dry and you will need irrigate the heap with a hose or watering can; or 3) deficient in nitrogen – add grass cuttings from the holding or brewers hops (ensure that they are free from animal inputs).
During composting a maintained temperature of 60°C (or 140°F) is strongly advised. A heap that does not heat to at least 50°C (or 122°F) for a week is likely to contain weed seed and disease organisms.
4. Allow Air Flow
If you want your compost to break down quickly then it needs to breathe. This is because many of the good bacteria that help break down your household or yard waste needs air to survive. You can usually tell that the oxygen level has dropped in your compost pile when the temperature of the pile drops; the core heat emanating from it should be between 50-60°C (or 120-160°F). This usually starts to happen around every two weeks, which makes every two weeks a good time to flip the compost. If you don’t have time to do a full flip, prodding the compost pile with a garden fork, stick, or metal rod will aerate the pile and speed up the process.
When you turn the compost pile, pull material from the outer edges into the middle of the heap and break up any large clumps that may have formed. If any part of the pile is dry, moisten it as you go, but be careful of over-watering.
Keeping your compost pile moist is one of the keys to keeping it active and decomposing at a good speed. On average, you want about 50-60% moisture content. Excess moisture drowns beneficial micro-organisms. The moisture level should be the equivalent of a wrung-out sponge. Grab a handful of compost (from the middle of the pile) and squeeze it.
- No water comes out and it crumbles apart when you open your hand: The compost is too dry.
- Water comes out: The compost is too wet.
- No water comes out, but the compost stays compact: Perfect!
Basically, you want your compost lightly moistened, but water shouldn’t be running off it and it shouldn’t be dry enough to notice. If you’re in a dry area you may need to spray a bit of water on the pile from time to time. If you’re in a rainy area, covering the top of the pile with a tarp or other sort of covering will protect it from getting too soggy.