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2 Types of Composting for the Home Gardener

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There are two types of composting you can do right in your own backyard: hot composting and cold composting. When you make your own compost, you can save money. And you can use all that black gold to add plenty of rich nutrients to your tomato garden.

What the 2 types of composting have in common

Compost is decomposed organic matter. Whether you choose hot composting or cold composting, they work in a similar way. 

Two primary types of materials combine to make compost: greens (like grass clippings, weeds, and kitchen scraps) which are high in nitrogen, and browns (like dry leaves and corn stalks), which are high in carbon. Fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and microorganisms break down all this organic matter. Greens and browns also need some water and air to transform into rich humus.

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What’s the difference between the two types of composting?

Why then, if the process is the same, are there the two types of composting for the backyard gardener? It’s a question of how much time you have until you need the compost and how much effort you want to put into getting it – and the compost quality you’d like to have at the end of the process.

Hot composting requires some management. You need to be careful about what you put on your compost pile so that the volume ratio between browns is twice the amount of greens. A hot pile heats up fast and maintains a high internal temperature, which in turn helps to break down the organic matter into nutrient-rich compost. 

Cold composting, on the other hand, takes a lot less work. It’s a “leave-it-and-forget-it” approach. 

How does hot composting work?

Hot composting is an aerobic process. That means it uses oxygen. You combine organic matter, add a bit of moisture, and turn the pile every few days to make sure oxygen passes through the layers. 

The hot compost pile heats up to a temperature that not only breaks down all the yard and kitchen waste, but also destroys most fungi, weed seeds, plant diseases, and pest larvae that have been thrown into the mix. All that activity explains why hot composting is also called “active composting.”

Follow these practical steps to build your hot compost pile:

  • Layer browns and greens in a ratio of 2:1 in volume (2 parts brown material to 1 part green material) or 1:1 ratio in weight. Outdoors, it’s easier to layer by volume.
  • Keep the pile lightly moistened so the material is damp like a wrung-out sponge, but never sopping wet. Moisture works to help the pile’s pockets of bacteria to multiply and heat up.
  • Turn your compost pile every two or three days. You can use a pitchfork, shovel, or tractor (if your pile is big.) 
  • Look for signs of heat. After a couple of days, you may see steam rising from your compost pile, which indicates that the organic matter is heating up and breaking down. You can check the temperature if you like, using a compost thermometer. Aim for 130-155 degrees F. 
  • Continue turning your pile until organic material appears to be composted, which will take at least three weeks. A well-decayed compost pile can have gray bits of plant material on its surface, much like ash. That’s also a sign that bacteria are doing their work.

How long does it take for hot compost to break down?

In perfect conditions, you can have new compost from your hot pile in three or four weeks. Yet clearly there are plenty of variables, so yours may take a few months.

Why choose hot composting?

Hot compositing gives you all that luscious humus to add to your tomato garden in a short time – often, in just a few weeks. Plus, hot composting produces a better product. The heat destroys seeds, fungi, and all kinds of nasties that you don’t want in your garden.

How does cold composting work?

There’s a good reason that “passive composting” is another word for cold composting. It’s the easiest way to get black gold. There are just two steps:

  1. Add material to your pile
  2. Wait

Having said that, there’s a basic principle from Mother Nature: everything organic eventually breaks down. Cold composting simply takes longer than hot composting. The organic matter doesn’t bake. Instead, all that organic material breaks down courtesy of microorganisms that prefer oxygen deprivation. Anaerobic, they call it.

But less work means cold composting has disadvantages. 

  • The no-bake process is accompanied by plenty of unusual (or even “fragrant”) smells.
  • Since a cold compost pile doesn’t cook, it gathers more water. The process can be much wetter than hot composting. 
  • And because a cold compost pile doesn’t cook, it won’t get hot enough to kill seeds and pathogens. Avoid putting weeds in your compost pile. Otherwise, your compost becomes an easy way for weeds to broadcast their offspring into your garden … which defeats the purpose of saving yourself work by cold composting, right?

How long does it take for cold compost to break down?

A cold pile can take from one to two years or more to produce usable compost. 

Why choose cold composting?

Maybe you’re not in a hurry for compost. Or you may not be able to spend the time needed to build the perfect compost pile, check its moisture level, and turn it every couple of days so it’s aerated. Or you don’t have a lot of garden and kitchen waste at one time to dedicate to starting a hot compost pile. 

Any of those scenarios are good reasons to maintain a cold compost pile for a year or two and add to it gradually. 

Which of the 2 types of composting should you choose?

Each of the two types of composting has its advantages. Hot composting kills weed seeds and pathogens. Plus, hot composting produces results sooner – in a few weeks or at the most, a couple of months. But be forewarned: it takes more work. 

Cold composting is easy. You simply pile up leaves, grass clippings, fireplace ashes, and kitchen scraps and then leave them alone for a year or more.

An optimal solution, if you have room: use both types of composting. Put forth a bit of effort for a couple of weeks to create one hot composting pile so you have black gold ready to use. And add to a cold composting pile over the months and years so you have compost to add to your garden plot down the road.

More about composting for tomatoes

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