Compost is all around us. It occurs naturally anywhere a leaf falls, grass is cut, or a flower withers away. The compost that most people are familiar with is a product of the process many gardeners use to turn yard wastes into the ultimate soil amendment and fertilizer. With landfills throughout the world filling up, it has become more important than ever to utilize every method we have to reduce our wastes and reuse them.
Composting is a way of mimicking natural processes in an efficient system of breaking down organic materials into a usable material for the garden. After a period of weeks or months, organic materials break down into a biologically active humus material that is rich in nutrients, beneficial fungi, bacteria, and earthworms.
To work effectively, compost requires four main ingredients:
- Carbon – used for energy (these are typically brown and dry materials)
- Nitrogen – feeds organisms that oxidize the carbon (these materials are typically green and wet)
- Oxygen – used in the decomposition process
- Water – helps maintain decomposition process
Most compost guides advise a balance of two parts browns (high carbon) to one part greens (high nitrogen). However, keeping this balance is just optional. Balancing these materials will help speed up the process of decomposition, but you can do just fine adding organic materials as they come especially if you do not have a deadline for your mature compost. That being said, be careful not to add too many greens (specifically food wastes) all at once. This can cause anaerobic conditions that are detrimental to the organisms in the compost pile as well as your garden.
What goes in it?
These are just some of the many examples of things that can (and should!) go into your compost instead of the landfill.
How to Start Your Compost:
Find a location that is convenient to access as you add your materials. Preferably, the area you select will be at least partially shaded in a well-drained area protected from winds that might dry out the compost. Sunny and windy locations can tend to keep the pile dry which will drastically slow down the decomposition process. Be careful not to locate the pile too close to trees or shrubs. Over time, any adjacent plants will tend to grow into your compost pile. Depending on how neat and tidy you might intend to keep your compost pile, you may want to site it in a location that is screened from your view or your neighbor’s view. The container that you use might also play a role in how you site it.
Compost containers are completely optional but can provide many beneficial elements to the process. A container can help make the rotating process easier, add additional aeration, and keep compost consistently moist. It can be as complex as a drum tumbler or as simple as a homemade wire cage. The downside to most containers is their limited size and high cost. However, they can drastically speed up the process if you compost smaller portions at a time.
I have always used a wooden frame compost bin or just a simple pile on the ground. This allows you to adapt to the amount of materials you need to compost. Because piles of organic materials that are slowly composting aren’t usually the nicest thing to look at all the time, we will be constructing a three chambered compost bin system. Providing a structure for compost pilles creates good air circulation and allows you to build the pile higher. Here is a look at what we will be constructing:
(We will be creating a tutorial for how we build this very soon.)
Maintaining your compost pile
To hasten decomposition and prevent anaerobic conditions (and some nasty smells), it is very important to turn your compost pile over. What you want to accomplish is to thoroughly mix up the materials. This allows for even decomposition while exposing many of the harmful pathogens, insects, and weed seeds to the high temperatures in the middle of your compost pile. An active compost pile will reach a temperature between 150° and 160° F. Turning your compost continually supplies it with oxygen maintaining this heating process. I turn my piles once every one to two weeks (more in hot weather).
Well maintained compost will be ready for use in the garden in three to six months in warm weather. Compost that is made with coarser materials or started during the fall and winter can take much longer. When the compost is finished, it will be a crumbly black material with an earthy smell to it. A compost pile will shrink to about half its original size when it is finished.
Common mistakes and how to avoid them:
- Don’t be stingy. The more the merrier when it comes to compost. The more material you have to compost, the faster it will colonize with microbes and ultimately the faster it will finish.
- Chop up the materials as much as possible. Smaller particles of organic materials will break down faster.
- Be diverse. Add lots of different organic materials especially when you are starting a new pile. Not only does this give your compost pile a balanced diet, it can provide higher amounts of nutrients to the finish compost you might add to your gardens.
- Don’t drown in theory. Everyone is an expert, but really it’s ok to just jump in and experiment. It’s really hard to ruin your compost. You will simply figure out how to make it work faster and easier for you.
- Keep it moist. Your compost is a living organism. Feed and water it regularly or the microbes will begin to die out. The less microbes, the longer it takes.
Using compost in your garden:
All this work shouldn’t be for nothing. Reward yourself for recycling all of these materials by using the compost to create beautiful and tasty gardens. Adding compost to your garden is the perfect soil amendment. It improves the physical, chemical, and biological properties of soil. It provides moisture retention, so you don’t have to water as often. It provides nutrients and makes them more available to plants, so you don’t have to fertilize as often. It can also provide better drainage and aeration to hard clay soils, something we deal with everywhere in the south.
Add compost to your garden at least once a year to see these benefits. If you have finished compost, mix in least 1-2 inches into the top 6 inches of soil. If you have unfinished compost, add at least 3-4 inches as a mulch over the top of the soil. It’s as simple as that.
Organic gardening and composting go hand in hand. Building and maintaining fertile soil should be a gardener’s main goal. Healthy soil means less work, less disease and pest problems, and larger harvests. The simplest method of maintaining healthy soil is by amending with compost. We rely on this every season. It keeps so much of our wastes out of the landfill and our gardens flourishing.
What better way is there of directly turning trash into treasure?