Composting 101: The Beginner's Guide to Making Compost

Friday, October 9, 2015

On the farm we tend to remove plants as they are harvested, so the soil is gradually impoverished. Composting is one of the easiest and cheapest ways that we've found for adding nutrients, amending the soil texture and improving the drainage of our soil. 

Good compost can maintain soil fertility for up to 5 years. This is especially helpful if you live in an area like ours with sandy soils that do not retain moisture. We will be discussing soils soon, so stay tuned for that. Adding compost to your soils will greatly improve yields and is the way to go if you want to go into organic farming.

Go ahead and gather all the materials below to get started composting and make a 1.5m wide by 1.5m height and any length compost pile. The compost must never be too high because the weight will limit the flow of air. The pile must be turned when the temperature reaches 600C. (Turning is the process of moving the pile from one location to the next by breaking it up and mixing all the ingredients). 

What to compost

Our neighbors at King’s Landing Farm,  in Ruwa, Zimbabwe use the following for their compost piles:
  1. Use raw kitchen waste, including eggshells, fruits and veggies,coffee and tea bags.
  2. Straw and bush grass.
  3. Grass clippings.
  4. Leaves.
  5. Chicken manure.
  6. Horse manure.
  7. Use agriculture waste and vegetable matter, such as maize stover.
  8. Sawdust.
  9. Peanut shells.
  10. Hedge trimmings.
The horse manure and chicken manure will help to heat up the pile and speed up the decomposition process while providing the high levels of nitrogen to the pile. Turn the compost pile every second day and water it to ensure that it always remains moist (not waterlogged!) The turning ensures the pile is aerobic and the water helps to accelerate the decomposition process. 

What not to compost

Here is a list of things NOT to include in your compost:
  1. Avoid cooked food or nonvegetable food scraps such as bakery products, they will attract rats.
  2. Dairy products.
  3. Dog/ cat feces.
  4. Meat or bones.
  5. Avoid weeds, especially weed roots and weed seeds.

Making compost

The process of the actual composting is the most important part. For the decomposition to begin, the compost needs water. All the materials in the compost need to remain moist for decomposition to occur. The easiest way to check moisture is to do a simple squeeze test where you squeeze the materials in your hand and if water drips out then it is too wet.

But if just a few drops of water seep through your fist then the moisture content is just right. You compost pile should look like a neat loaf of bread. The width should not exceed 1.5m and the height should also not exceed 1.5m. The length, however, can be as long you want. If it gets too high then an anaerobic environment is created from all the weight and this causes the pile to stink.

Mix in the ingredients alternating opposites. An example would be putting a layer of brown materials then a layer of green materials or layer of coarse materials alternating with a layer of fine materials.

The pile should be turned often to encourage aeration and speed up the composting process. Turning is simply moving the pile from its original spot to a new one and mixing the ingredients in the process. Repeat this from time to time until the compost is brown, crumbly, and sweet-smelling. It is then ready to use.

Now it's your turn...

Hope this list will help finally get you started building your own compost and improving your soil. If you have any great compost formulas you would like to share with us, you're welcome to leave them in the comments section below. 

Happy composting!


Kundai is the co-founder and co-editor of Emerging Farmer. She grows, processes and distributes mushrooms, vegetables and livestock on her family's farm. Say hello @kundeezy

Disclaimer: while Emerging Farmer does everything to ensure the accuracy of our guides, it is important to contact an agronomist or your Agritex officer for accurate recommendations for your farm. Emerging farmer takes no responsibility for any losses or damage incurred due to information in this guide.

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