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The Science of Compost

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The Magic of Microbes

Though compost may seem like magic, it relies on little critters — either microbes or worms. As King explains, these helpers require food, air and water. “Microbes rely upon a balance of carbon and nitrogen. Carbon provides the energy source, and nitrogen is used as ‘building blocks’ to produce more microbes,” King said. Specifically, this recipe translates to 30 or 40 parts paper or leaves (carbon) per one part food scraps or grass clippings (nitrogen). The mix must be kept moist and well aerated. If the mix is right, the microbes produce compost, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Without enough oxygen or the wrong mix, it could start producing stinky volatile organic acids.

Time and Temperature: The Keys to Compost

King recommends taking the temperature of a compost pile. The goal is temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Richard Stehouwer is an associate professor of environmental soil science at Penn State University. He explains why cooler compost isn’t doing its job. “Anaerobic decomposition is much slower and generates far less heat than aerobic decomposition,” he said. “So heat dissipates from the pile as quickly as it is being generated and the pile temperature does not increase. In these systems anything that prevents oxygen from reaching zones in the pile where decomposition is ongoing will result in anaerobic conditions and production of malodorous gasses.”

“Optimizing the recipe will create an odor-free, aerobic environment,” King said. “When any of these items are out of balance, odors ensue.  The good news is that with proper attention, most problems are easily fixed and odors go away.”

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8:11AM PDT on Aug 6, 2013

thanks for sharing

1:01AM PDT on Sep 21, 2011

An important article to read if you want to compost.

11:35PM PDT on Apr 12, 2011


12:06AM PDT on Apr 11, 2011

great! thanks for the info.

12:06AM PDT on Apr 11, 2011

great! thanks for the info.

7:05PM PDT on Apr 8, 2011

Compost is awesome. ty for the article.

8:12AM PDT on Apr 8, 2011

thanks, this is so important

8:11AM PDT on Apr 8, 2011


11:09AM PDT on Apr 2, 2011

Wow thank you for this great information on composting. I had no idea there was a "right way" to do it until reading your article. Keep up the good work!

9:32PM PDT on Apr 1, 2011

Adding paper is somethingI haven't been doing..Thankyou! I love Care2, I learn so many tips so fast, that improve my life! Thankyou, again!!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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