Participating in the evolution of kitchen scraps to valuable garden soil has been part of my life for over 30 years. I thank my grandmother for teaching me the basics. One of my daily chores as a child was to bury the garbage. Vegetable scraps were cut up into small pieces and mixed with the soil in a trench. Scraps would be added daily in assembly line fashion. The heat of the sun promoted microbial action. The scraps quickly degraded to fertile soil and so avoided smells, insects, and rodents. This was my first experience with hot composting.
Many gardeners feel that hot composting is too labor intensive. Personally, I feel a little bit of work reaps a lot of benefit. A cold compost heap can take six months to two years to fully degrade to soil. At lower temperatures, bad bacteria and weed seeds will live and can cause a self-perpetuating problem in the garden. I had a cold compost heap one winter and it caused an unfortunate rodent issue. For the sake of efficiency and health, a hot compost heap is by far beneficial. The time required with using the hot compost method can be as little as two weeks to be complete.
There are many kinds of composting structures at varying prices. Barrels or tumblers can be purchased or made out of an ordinary trashcan. Many people are fond of constructing with wood pallets. I have used snow fencing, hog (or livestock fencing) and once a large cardboard box! The cardboard box can eventually be turned into compost! A black plastic tarp was used as a cover for all of these to help keep heat and moisture in. Now I have a large black plastic commercially made one that my son refers to as “the containment unit,” which is a reference to the movie “Ghostbusters.” It is an accurate description. It is secure in keeping the compost in and the critters out!
Once you have your containment unit of choice, you can start the process. I favor dry leaves as a base. You can also use straw, wood shavings, shredded newspaper, or sawdust. Then add some manure. The best compost pile I had was started with about two shovels full of chicken manure. Also, add some finished compost as it will give you the microbes that are needed to break down the components. You can also use a couple of shovels full of decomposed leaves. All food scraps will decompose faster if chopped into small pieces. A blender that you pick up at a yard sale can be used to speed along the chopping process. Use vegetable and fruit scraps and peels, coffee grounds, and egg shells! Steer clear of any meat, bone, dairy, or pet manure as it does not break down easily and will not only cause stench but will attract rodents. Pet hair and human hair is permissible though. It should all be damp. A cover is essential to maintain moisture.
To create a very small batch of compost, you can put smaller amounts of the aforementioned ingredients in a heavy-duty black plastic bag. Mix the ingredients daily by just mashing and squishing the bag. Be careful not to puncture it and you will also need to open it daily to insure proper aeration.
For the traditional pile, systematically layer your scraps and dry matter and mix as the pile grows. I prefer to add leaves and continually stir as opposed to turning. My tools of choice for this task are a pitchfork (for aeration) and ice scraper, which is great for chopping larger bits that you might have missed.
Remember to add water if it seems a bit dry but do not soak. Many gardeners use a compost thermometer that you can purchase for under $20. I have never used one.
After blending all of this, sit back for a few days to let it percolate. The temperature of the center of your pile should never exceed 170 degrees. I have never had the problem of overheating. I have started piles in the autumn in this way that all have overwintered successfully. In the winter you can easily see how hot the pile is as it will generate steam. Regular addition of kitchen scraps will keep it active. Winters in our area can see temperatures below zero. My husband has commented upon seeing the steam rise, “What the heck’s going on out there!!” I reply, “That is microbial action working in the compost pile!”
You will know your compost is finished when nothing you have put in is recognizable as its former self. There will just be just nutrient rich odor-free humus to add to your garden!