Composting is a pretty simple process… right? I can hear you say to yourself, “Composting is easy, all I have to do is toss my organic material in a pile and wait.” That statement, as true as it is, can lead to many issues down the road. Composting is a little more complex than a person many think, but can be very simple if you know what you are doing.
Composting starts with your basic organic material (Yard, food, and animal waste). Once you have organic material, there are a few things you need to create the perfect composting environment.
Moisture is a key component for composting. In a well maintained compost pile, moisture content should be around 50%! Moisture is important because it gives micro-organisms and bacteria an environment to live in and reproduce quickly. Moisture also helps hold and maintain heat within the pile of organic material.
The next component is very important to the composting process: heat. Heat does a couple of things to compost. First off, heat kills many soil-borne pathogens and kills off weed seeds. Though the later reason is not as important, it does make gardening a lot easier! It is not uncommon for a properly maintained compost pile to reach temperatures over 130 Fahrenheit (whoa!). This great amount of heat comes from the bacteria and micro-organisms breaking down the organic material with the proper amount of moisture and oxygen.
The last component needed to compost properly is oxygen. Oxygen does two things in a compost pile. The first is it allows aerobic bacteria and micro-organisms to grow and reproduce. Because an aerobic (with oxygen) bacterium is present you don’t get the odor that is commonly associated with decomposition of organic material as you would with anaerobic (without oxygen) bacteria. The second thing oxygen does is a result of the first. Anaerobic bacteria not only break down organic material with minimal smell, it will also break down organic material in less time. Organic material can go from start to finish in about six months if proper conditions are maintained.
Oxygen can sometimes be a little tricky to maintain in a compost pile. There are two common methods of keeping the compost oxygenated. The first is simply turning the pile and mixing it once or twice a week. The second method is using a manifold and forcing oxygen into the pile with a blower. We use the first.
Now that you know how the composting process works there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is anyone can compost on their own property as long as they keep the amount of material on site under 50 cubic yards. Once a site gets to 50 cubic yards a permit is required by the state Department of Natural Resources, or if you live in Minnesota the Pollution Control Agency.
Wisconsin state composting regulations visit: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Recycling/regs.html
Minnesota state composting regulations visit: http://www.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/waste/waste-and-cleanup/waste-management/commercial-composting/compost.html