Most of us have heard of composting. Rather than throwing leftover food in the garbage, you toss it on a compost heap, where it eventually breaks down into fertilizer. Great!
But do you know how composting actually works? How does all that smelly food trash turn into something healthy for your plants?
The elements involved in composting
There are four main ingredients required for a successful compost heap: organic waste like newspaper, leaves, fruit and vegetable remains; soil which provides natural, beneficial microorganisms; water which is provided by rain and the fluids contained in the organic material; and air, which you provide by turning the contents of the compost heap on a regular basis.
What happens to the garbage?
The microorganisms that are contained in your soil break down the organic waste using a process called aerobic respiration. That’s why a traditional compost heap requires air – because aerobic means using air. Other forms of composting, like bokashi, use anaerobic respiration but we won’t get into that here!
To help the microorganisms do their job, large pieces of waste should be broken down into smaller bits. They also need water in order to thrive, so if you don’t get plentiful rain, you may want to water your compost heap. You want it to be consistently moist, but not soaking wet.
The composting process
Once you’ve combined your ingredients, and you’ve been regularly turning and watering the mixture, the composting starts to happen. Depending on where you live, your soil will contain different types of microorganisms, but the overall process remains the same.
As your microbes break down the organic waste, they release carbon dioxide gas and heat. When your compost heap is in full swing, temperatures will reach 100 to 150 degrees. There may also be some gas bubbles in the mixture, which you’ll notice when you’re turning it.
You may also find some bugs and earthworms in the pile, which is perfectly fine. They typically aid in the composting process.
As long as everything is going well, your compost heap shouldn’t smell too bad (once the process has begun). It should smell rich and earthy. If it smells rancid, grows black mold, or there are a lot of recognizable pieces of trash that aren’t breaking down, you might need to remove some of the waste from the pile.
When is it done cooking?
If the compost mixture is dark brown or black, and there are no recognizable pieces of trash that you can see, the composting process is probably complete. There are a few other things to look for, to be absolutely sure.
The temperature should have decreased below 100 degrees, meaning the microorganisms are running out of material to break down. The volume of the heap should have decreased by 50 to 75 percent, and it should have a crumbly texture to it. You also shouldn’t smell any of the waste anymore, so the compost should emit a pleasant smell similar to rich soil.
The overall process isn’t complicated at all. If you’re more interested in the science of composting, you can research different microorganisms and the way they react with specific types of organic material. You can also test the pH level of your soil and experiment with your microbes and waste to produce ideal pH levels for different plants.
Maintaining a compost heap is easy, beneficial to the environment, and provides free fertilizer for your garden (or somebody else’s garden, if you don’t want your own). There’s no reason not to get started now!