Making your own compost helps get rid of household waste that might otherwise end up in the landfill, uses garden debris as a supercharged fertilizer for your garden plants and saves you a lot of money, too. It’s a no brainer when it comes to being eco friendly and penny wise. Everything from fallen leaves, grass cuttings, plant prunings to spoiled vegetables, canned fruit and bread can make fertilizer and mulch. I want to give you a guide you can both read for education and use on a daily basis as a sort of “how to”.
Generations of gardeners have consistently come up with the same idea: a fertile soil is the key to growing garden vegetables and compost is the key to a fertile soil. The first step in the four-season harvest is learning to make good compost. It’s not difficult. Compost wants to happen. It doesn’t take a lot of effort or creativity on your part to make this wonderful mush that your plants are eager to devour. Just think of how great your garden will be next year! Nature makes plants and when they die, they are feed for more new plants. It’s as simple as that.
Pick a site near the garden so the finished compost will be close at hand. Whenever possible, place the heap in a shady spot with alternate hours of some sun so it will not degrade too rapidly in hot weather and in snowy regions it will thaw reasonably rapidly in spring. A site near the kitchen makes it convenient to add kitchen scraps. Access to a hose is handy for those times when the heap needs extra moisture. If you have a hilly piece of land, place the site uphill from the garden so that the heavy work of wheelbarrowing loads of compost will be easier coming downhill.
Build the compost heap by alternating layers of brown ingredients (such as dried grass stems, old cornstalks, dried pea and bean vines, reeds, and old hay) with mostly green ones (young, moist, and fresh materials such as kitchen wastes, grass clippings, fresh pea vines). You should begin with a layer of straw about 3 inches deep, then add 1 to 6 inches of green ingredients, another 3 inches of straw, and then more green ingredients. This is a very good recipe for building the right texture and lightness to the product.
But remember that the thickness of the green layer depends on the nature of the materials. Loose, open material such as green bean vines or tomato stems can be applied in a thicker layer, up to six inches in width. But denser material that might mat together, such as kitchen scraps or grass clippings, should be layered much more thinly, such as to a width of only 1 or 2 inches. You can start with this basic model and then made modifications with practice over time.
Sprinkle a thin coverage of soil on top of each green layer as you complete it. Make the soil 1/2 inch deep or so depending on what type of green material is available. As an example, if you have just added a layer of weeds with soil on their roots, you can skip the soil layer. Remember that adding soil to the compost heap has both physical and a microbiological effects. The physical effect is created by certain soil constituents (clay particles and minerals) have been shown to enhance the decomposition of organic matter. The microbiological effect occurs because soil contains millions of microorganisms, which are needed to break down the organic material in the heap.
The engineering behind the creation of compost is based on the emergence of bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that multiply in the warm, moist conditions as decomposition starts. If your garden is very sandy or gravely, you might want to find some clay to add to the soil layers. And as an additional benefit, the clay will improve the balance of soil particle sizes in your garden.
Your quick reference list:
Recycle everything green or brown. This includes every debris from your garden and all the left over vegetables, fruits, breads, etc… Leave out weeds if you can. Their seeds will spread weeds to the garden and be a real chore.
Keep key ingredients in mind. Stick with the brown and green rule. Examples of brown or green items that can be added are:
Unused Cereal, Pasta and Rice
Empty Cereal, Pasta and Rice Boxes
Small twigs and vines (but NO large twigs or pieces of wood; they slow the compost down)
Tree & grass clippings
Old potting soil, even that soil from dead houseplants
Any clean discarded cardboard items
Shredded paper and discarded note paper (nothing heavily stained with ink)
Fresh leaves and cuttings (but NOT WEEDS)
Fresh vegetable peelings
Kitchen scraps (such as coffee grounds, egg shells, mixed salad, potatoes)
Tip: If you chop, shred or cut your garden debris into small pieces, it will break down much more quickly.
Create compost in five easy steps
1. When you first begin, choose the plot where you will build the pile and turn two inches of topsoil in that spot to encourage drainage and attract earthworms to your pile.
2. Arrange a layer of twigs, branches or wood chips on the ground to aid aeration.
3. Use a mix of green/fresh materials and brown/dry materials, alternating them as you build, as outlined in the opening explanation. Remember this rule of thumb: add a 2″-4″ layer of fresh materials, then a 6″-8″ in layer of dry materials.
4. Sprinkle water on the pile after every few layers of material and mix well. It should be kept damp, about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. DO NOT soak it or drown it; be consistent.
5. When you’re finished layering, cover the pile with plastic sheeting or a thick layer of soil. Your pile will begin to heat up in a few days when the microorganisms begin turning the organic material into compost. Keeping the pile warm also sterilizes the debris and destroys any weed seeds or diseases.
Tips For Success:
Be sure to size your compost heap correctly in ratio to the size of your garden. To small of a pile may not heat up enough for successful decomposition, while a really large one may retain too much moisture and not allow enough air into the center.
If you have a small space or garden, consider making a homemade bin, box or container out of wire mesh or wooden pallets. This type of enclosed structure will discourage pests, contain your compost and keep it looking neater.
Do not forget to turn the pile. The process of making compost can take weeks or months and how long depends on how much aeration and moisture your pile receives. If you turn it regularly, it should be ready in three to six months. Remember that It will take longer in winter because the cold slows down the heating process. You’ll know your compost is ready to use when it cools down, turns a rich brown color and starts to resemble soil.
General Problems You May Face:
If your compost starts to smell, it’s either too wet or needs more air. You may need to turn it more frequently for adequate aeration.
DO NOT compost any meat, oils or dairy products because these will attract rodents, flies and other pests. Here in Florida, we call that “feeding the possums”. However, ants are beneficial to the composting process because they move potassium and phosphorous around while they work and aerate the pile with their tunnels. Unless you see a huge number of ants, there is no problem. However, when you do see a huge number of ants, the compost pile is too greasy or too dry.
If your pile is too dry or is not heating up quickly enough, consider the moisture ratio. Without proper moisture, your compost may take several months to break down. Try adding more water and green materials to the mix.