Composting Tips

1 Composting Tips
By Terri Petersen and Gary Strehlow

Terri Peterson and Gary Strehlow own Nueva Tierra de Osa and make their composts, Worm Gardens, and other organic products in the shade of their 17 hectares of rain forest in Los Pargos. They also offer school and community programs and on-site and remote compost consulting services. Tico Pet Veterinary offers some of their products in Puerto Jimenez. They can be reached at and welcome visitors to their small operation.



Build three compost bins, side by side.

Ok, so by now after reading our first two Soil Sense columns you are interested in and motivated to create your own awesome soil with your organic wastes.  In the interest in being simple and concise, we stuck with the basic “How-To” composting instructions in those articles. Now you have the framework for composting.  It’s simple right?

 Here we flesh out some best practices (BP), helpful hints, and answer FAQs so your compost is better and easier to make.

BP-1:  Build three compost bins, side by side.  If you have three separated compost pile bins, turning the contents of the piles is much easier and less labor intensive.  You can always have 2 of them with working piles and leave one empty.  Each week move the contents of one pile into the empty bin.  Then move the contents of the 2nd pile into the newly emptied bin to again leave one empty.  Keep this up each week for 6 weeks (or 6 turnings).  Helpful Hint: Use a pitchfork (called bielda in Spanish).


 FAQ: Do I have to turn the pile every week?  No. Your materials will likely compost on their own, though slowly, and the quality may not be great because many materials won’t be well decomposed (i.e. Expect weed seeds to sprout). Turning injects air back into the materials and jump starts the lifecycle of the microorganisms doing the decomposition.  Each time you move the contents over to a new bin the temperature of the material will increase dramatically, spiking between 50-60°C. This is the result of your billions of microorganisms doing their job.  If not turned you get the great work of those microorganisms for only one round. If you turn it you get those little workers on overtime until the material is really broken down.  Helpful Hint:  If you can’t turn it every week then turn it at least 6 times. It’ll take longer to complete but will still decompose fine.

soilsense-4BP-2: Allow the pile to rest for a month AFTER the turnings are done.  We recommend that once your compost pile looks well decomposed that you place it in a covered location and don’t touch it for a month. What’s going on during this time? Nothing short of biology magic. Certain microorganisms are responsible for the thermal (heated) decomposition and only thrive in that environment. Once their ‘food’ in the organic waste is gone, they will not be present in the same numbers. Instead other microorganisms and visible organisms (mites, nematodes, earthworms and others) that thrive in cooler temps take it from there. These polish off the remaining ‘food’ such as the bacteria and fungi and leave even more nutrients (their waste products) in the compost. What you end up with is a super-rich compost that is completely decomposed and full of the beneficial organisms your plants need.  So the rule is  6 Turns + 1 month rest.  Helpful Hint:  Remember to have your compost area on dirt or grass.

Weedeating leaves 2

FAQ:  Why worry if the material is well decomposed?

If partially decomposed material is added to your soil or plant base, the organisms still present in the material are going to ROB your plant/soil of nutrients in order to finish their job of decomposing the organic material. Instead of adding good nutrient-rich compost you may be jeopardizing the health of your plant. Good finished compost should smell like dirt, clump together in your fist, be dark in color and not resemble the materials used. If you want ‘pretty’ compost, sift out larger non-composted materials with ½” wire mesh and throw the larger materials back into the next pile.  Helpful Hint: There are a LOT of products out there called “compost” but since there is no certification process yet in Costa Rica they can put whatever they want in and call it whatever they want. If you see obvious organic material (leaves and rice hulls) or rocks, sand, or dirt, it isn’t compost. It might be a soil amendment to help loosen your soil, but it isn’t going to provide much in the way of nutrients.



BP-3: Build a roof over your bins rather than cover with black plastic

Our Osa rainforest provides us with ample water for growing.  For composting, however, that blessing must be controlled.  Building a simple roofed structure out of posts or bamboo and plastic sheeting or metal roofing is essential. That way YOU control the amount of moisture your piles receive. A good rainstorm can literally flood a pile and kill off your working organisms.   Black plastic is often used to directly cover a pile.  We don’t recommend this as it restricts airflow, starts to decompose, rips, and pretty soon is a pain in the you-know-what to take off and put back on.  Speaking from experience, it’s easy to then not want to deal with turning the pile at all, become disheartened, and give up. Putting up a roof cures all that!

BP-4: Place the compost area where it is easy to access, near water, and near where you generate the waste.

Nothing is less motivating than having to hike out to your compost pile, haul buckets and buckets of water to build the piles, and/or haul the organics wastes from far away.  Just speaking in terms of wheelbarrows full of materials, you will transport far more materials to the compost pile than haul out in finished compost. Make it simple and easy for you. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)!

BP-5: Shred and chop the organic materials and remember the weedeater ‘secret’

Organic materials will decompose faster if they are chopped in smaller pieces. It’s all about available surface area for all those microorganisms to attack.   The smaller the piece= more surface area = more organisms = faster decomposition.  Secret weapon:  If you don’t have a chipper/shredder machine handy, you can use a weedeater and ½ of a 55 gal drum to grind up dry leaves into the perfect mulch to add to your compost pile. Fill the drum bottom about ¼ full of dry leaves and use a weedeater (pulses and up and down motion) to grind them up.  Practice with this method and you’ll get it! We do this in summer and bag the product in sacos to use in the rainy season when dry leaves are harder to come by.

FAQ:  What is that pipe doing in the compost pile?

Since our compost piles are bigger than the minimum recommended size of 1m x 1m x 1m we place a 3” PVC pipe in the center and build the pile around it. Each time the pile is turned the pipe goes with it. The pipe must be taller than the pile height and with ½” holes along the entire length of it. This is another secret weapon to increase air flow to the center of the pile.

Next month: MORE best practices, hints and FAQ

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