Compost making should be a continuous process

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Farmers can help restore and build soil fertility in their farms if they can make compost preparation an integral part of their farming. In an organic farming system, compost is never enough. It is a continour process for soil improvement.

Many farmers continue to ask questions about compost making. TOF has covered this issue in its past editions. However, for the sake of these farmers and anyone who may want to know more about the value of compost including how to make it, we hereby explain further the benefits of using compost to improve our soils for increased crop production and income.

Soil keeps on losing essential nutrients when it is leached, washed down slopes in heavy rain, by wind when the topsoil is blown away or broken down during ploughing. The soil also loses its carbon content as carbon dioxide (CO2), which is responsible for the climate change. The only way farmers can replenish the lost nutrients is through returning them to the soil as compost.

All these material are available on the farm and can cut down the cost of buying chemical fertilizers by a large margin.

Value of compost

• It holds moisture the way a sponge holds water.

• It holds nutrients that plants need for growth and facilitates the growth of microorganisms in the soil such as beneficial bacteria, fungi and larger organisms such as ants, beetles and earthworms.

• It acts as a protection against changes in pH of the soil.

• It contributes to a good soil structure.

A good soil must contain at least 12 per cent organic matter (carbon). The organic matter provides energy for the bacteria, fungi and other beneficial micro-orgasms in the soil. Microorganisms help break down dead plants and animal remains and in the process release carbon dioxide, water and mineral salts including nitrates, phosphates and other nutrients that crops need to grow healthy.

Compost is important because of the following reasons:

• It contains the main plant nutrients eg Nitrogen, (N) phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

• It improves the organic matter in the soil by providing humus.

• It helps hold water and air for plants.

• It makes micronutrients and trace elements available to the growing plants.

How to make compost

Compost can be prepared in two ways:

• The piling method

• The pit method

The pile method

The pile method is the easiest and most common method used by farmers.

1. Select an area in your farm that is protected from strong wind and sun e.g under the shade of a tree.

2. Mark the area where you intend to locate the compost, the minimum area is 1.25m x 1.25m.

3. Dig a shallow trench, which is the same size as the compost heap 20 cm deep. Smear the sides of the trench with water or a mixture of water and cow dung to prevent moisture and nutrients in the compost to not leach out of the compost heap. The shallow trench will become the foundation of the compost heap, the trench also helps to hold moisture especially during the dry season.

Making the compost

Foundation layer

1. Put the dry plants material such as small tree branches, maize stalks or sorghum stalks. Cut the plant material into small pieces. Spread the dry material evenly over the bottom of the trench to make a layer of 15-25cm. Sprinkle with water using a watering can or basin to ensure all the material is moist but not wet. This layer is called the foundation layer- the spaces between the plant material allows air to circulate and excess water to drain out of the upper layers of the compost.

Three basic layers

Layer 1: In this layer, put dry plant material such as grasses, dry leaves mixed with topsoil, manure and ashes. The layer should be about 20-25cm thick such the palm of your hand. Mix the material with soil, manure and ashes and sprinkle water to make it moist (not wet!). Mix the material thoroughly and evenly and spread it across the layer.

Layer 2: Make another layer of moist (green) material which is fresh or wilted such as weeds or grass cuttings, stems and vegetable leaves, tree branch leaves, damaged fruits, or vegetables or even kitchen waste. DO NOT sprinkle water in this layer but you can spread it to remain even (flat)

Layer 3: This layer should be composed of animal manure collected from fresh or dried cow dung, chicken waste, donkey manure sheep or goat droppings. The animal manure can be mixed soil old compost and some ashes to make a layer that is 5 -10 cm thick. If the manure is not adequate, make slurry (watery mixture) and spread it over as a thin layer about 1-2cm thick.

NOTE: After each layer you can sprinkle water mixed with EM1 to speed up the decomposition process. (Read more here)

4. Continue adding more layers in the same arrangement as layer 1, layer 2 and layer 3. The layers should make a gentle slope such that the middle is higher than on the sides until the heap is 1- 1.5 metres high.

5. Drive one or more ventilation sticks into the heap- these are used to test if the heap is decomposing well. The sticks also help to take out carbon dioxide and bring oxygen into the heap.

Covering layer

The finished heap has to be protected from the sun or drying out or from animals or anything that might disturb. The farmer can take the following measures to protect it: Prepare wet mud mixed with grass or straw, or with wide pumpkin leaves, banana leaves plastic polyethylene sheets. The cover should be completely covered with only the ventilation stick (also called thermometer stick).

Turning the compost

After three weeks, you can open up the compost heap and turn the compost, mixing all the layers while sprinkling water to make it moist but not wet. A little EM1 can be mixed with water to hasten the decomposing process.

Check the decomposition progress

Using the ventilation or temperature stick, you can keep on checking the decomposition process of your compost every week by pulling out the stick- if the stick has a white substance on it and has a bad smell, it means the decomposition is not going on well- you can turn the compost further and sprinkle some more water mixed with EM1 to make it moist but not wet.

Check if compost is ready

A mature compost heap is about the half the size of the original heap. Check to ensure the compost has a dark brown colour or black soil, which has a nice smell. All the original material should not be seen if the decomposition process went on well.

Using the compost

Ready compost can be used immediately by incorporating into the soil (ensure it is not left in the top of the soil as it loses nutrients. Alternatively compost can be covered and applying in the planting furrows; here it requires immediate covering once it is applied during planting to ensure the nutrients are not lost. Never leave compost exposed to the sun or rain as most of the nutrients such as nitrogen are lost in the atmosphere.

>> Share your experiences with TOF and fellow farmers. Send email to,  leave a comment below this article or SMS to 0715 916 136.



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