Gardening: Using small particles speeds up composting

For the News-DemocratDecember 26, 2013 

Q. I built a barrel composter, but I found out it does not work as well as the designer said it would. What could be the problem?

-- G.L. of Glen Carbon

A. Using a barrel or drum composter is one of the fastest methods of producing compost. My first question is, what was the size of the plant material you put in the composter?

The smaller the particles, the faster compost is produced. You can break down plant material with a shredder or rotary lawn mower, creating more surface area for decay.

Long stems or clumps will slow down the process and add too much woody material. If you are using woody material, add about a cup of ammonium nitrate to feed it with nitrogen.

Next, consider how much moisture you are adding to the plant material. It needs to stay moist, but not soaking wet. Ideally, it should feel like a wrung-out sponge.

Too much water will prevent oxygen in the air from making contact with the surface material. So, water sparingly.

What was the ratio of green material to brown, dead material in your composter? Ideally, it should be 25 parts carbon to one part nitrogen for fast compost production.

This could be attained with equal parts garden debris, kitchen plant scraps and dried leaves. Or half straw, half dried manure. Or a mix of grass clippings, straw and garden leftovers.

Fill the barrel only 2/3 full. In time, after decay has begun, you will notice more space becoming available. Never use any animal tissue; it will only produce more flies when it's warm.

Turn the compost mixture three to five times a day. Check to see if it's wet or dry. If it feels dry, add more water with each turn of the drum, keeping the hose nozzle on a mist setting.

If you do all this correctly, you should be able to produce good compost in three weeks in the summer or four to five weeks in the winter.

Temperatures also affect speed of decomposition. Decay slows down to just about nothing when it's below 32 degrees. But the drum will heat up on warm winter days and in bright sunlight.

You are ahead in thinking about the value of compost, as it is the richest nourishment for plants. Basic raw materials usually are available for free. People throw them away or burn them.

Correctly made compost will never burn a plant, so you can mix it with one part compose to one part soil.

Compost will also increase the water-holding capacity of roots without water-logging because it allows drainage. It also will open the soil to more oxygen penetration for root health.

You have given many gardeners something to think during this season of giving. Thank you for the question. It will help people get ready to go in early spring.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Pat Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427. Or email to

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