There is no store bought product better for the garden than compost, and I believe it’s the single most important ingredient we can add to our gardens. Even better, it’s free and we can make as much of it as we want! It helps add life and fertility to the soil, improves drainage while allowing the soil to retain sufficient moisture and it creates good soil structure, a critical element in allowing nutrients and water to be absorbed, and roots to spread.
Composting occurs in nature constantly. Plant and animal waste breaks down into soil-like particles over time, with no involvement from us. The simplest compost piles are just that; piles of yard waste and kitchen scraps. There are no fancy systems, containers, bins, or compartments to facilitate the process. Although a simple pile will suffice to make perfectly usable compost, more elaborate systems can be built or purchased to contain the mix, and help speed up the decomposition process.
Compost structures come in many shapes and sizes – your choice will depend on the space and materials you have available. Structures can be made of woven wire, snow fencing, old wooden pallets, concrete blocks or bricks, or a 55-gallon barrel. Successful composting can even be accomplished in a modified garbage can. Structures can also be made with single or multiple compartments. Once you’ve decided what structure is right for you, position your compost bin in a shady spot near a water source. Make sure it has good drainage, is protected from direct winds and is at least 2 feet from any other structure.
There are four essential elements necessary for compost to occur. They are water, air, carbon (brown stuff, like paper, cardboard, dead leaves and twigs), and nitrogen (green stuff, like grass clippings and vegetable and salad scraps).
To start a compost pile, you don’t need anything fancy. A simple accumulation of green waste (10-25%) and brown waste (75-90%) will get you going. Every week or so, try to mix up the pile, so you add oxygen to help speed up the decomposition process. Add a sprinkling of water, enough to give the pile the moistness of a damp sponge, and you will be well on your way to making compost. Depending on the variables, you should be able to have usable compost in about four months to one year.
You can add many items to your compost pile or bin. Almost anything from the yard or garden can be added. Try to avoid adding limbs that are thicker than a pencil. They’ll take longer to break down. Also, avoid adding diseased plants. The disease pathogens may not be killed in the composting process, and you can end up adding diseases into your soil. I also choose not to include weeds into the mix. Weed seeds can persist for a very long time, and may survive through the composting process, only to be spread to other areas of your garden as you add new compost.
When adding household products, the biggest items to avoid are meat, fish, bones and dairy products. They can attract outdoor pests and can harbor many types of bacteria and disease.
Your compost will be ready to use when its dark brown, earthy-smelling and crumbly. The end-result is undoubtedly the best soil food and conditioner available – it’s recycling at it’s best!