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#110 - Composting Basics

As we start the Garden Series discussions, one of the first things that we need to discuss is compost, because this will be on of the basic building blocks of the garden.


Compost is a natural result of the breakdown of organic material as it degrades. All organic matter will break down over time and become compost, however it is possible for us to speed up and control how that breakdown occurs. That is basically the difference between cold-composting and hot-composting, which is what we want to discuss today.


Composting that happens in nature when leaves fall from a tree and slowly degrade over a long amount of time laying on the ground is what we mean by cold-composting because the temperature inside the material being composted does not rise very high. Cold-composting relies on anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria are forms of bacteria that do not live or grow when oxygen is present Because cold-composting relies on anaerobic bacteria you will notice a slimy feel to leaves being composted this way and you will also notice a rotten smell as the material decomposes. Believe me, a cold-compost pile is NOT something you want anywhere close to, or upwind from your house, or your neighbors house if you want to remain on friendly terms with them.


Hot-composting on the other hand happens relatively quickly due to the high heat generated in the compost pile that breaks the materials down. A typical hot-compost pile will get up to a range of between 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot-composting relies on aerobic bacteria, or bacteria which rely on and thrive in oxygen. The heat generated inside the compost pile is because of the aerobic bacteria deep inside the pile working hard to break the material down quickly.


I know I keep saying quickly when referring to hot-compost and over time when referring to a cold-compost. Let's put them into some kind of perspective so you can see the difference. A cold-compost will take many months, or even up to a couple years to completely break down the organic material whereas a hot-compost pile can break down the material within about three to four weeks. Now you understand what a huge time difference there is between the two different forms of composting.


As part of this series I have started a new compost pile in my yard in which I will be using the hot-compost method to break down organic matter and get it ready to use on my garden.


To keep things simple, I will be using materials and items that are readily available either through Amazon or at your local home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowes.  I chose to go with the 36"' x 36" x 30" wire compost cage shown below which is available from Amazon. You can also find similar compost cages at home improvement or gardening centers.

The heavy gauge steel wire is powder coated for long life outdoors in your yard and will last you many years. They are available in both green and black colors and are available in two sizes, however for a hot-compost pile, the larger 36" x 36" x 30" size is necessary to obtain the amount of biomass necessary to generate the required heat in the center of the pile for hot-composting which we will discuss later. The open mesh panel sides allow for proper airflow which is crucial in a compost pile.