Compost is the best form of organic matter to add to your soil and can keep your soil stocked with all the micro nutrients your plants will need. Compost is a mix of organic materials such as clippings, kitchen scraps, and garden waste decayed into a dark, crumbly mass. It increases the overall health of your garden by suppressing disease organisms in the soil. You will see compost marketed in tidy little bags at most garden centers, but why buy it when it is so simple to make right at home?
Good compost is made up of three parts “browns” to one part “greens.” Some of the common browns are: straw, hay, leaves, cornstalks, sawdust, shredded newspaper, dry brown weeds, and dry grass clippings. Some greens are: fresh grass clippings, fresh manure, alfalfa hay, crushed eggshells, cabbage or broccoli leaves, fresh weeds, green garden trimmings, and coffee grounds.
There are two basic types of composting: Hot (fast) composting or Slow (cold) composting, bins, boxes, or tumblers are just containers for making either hot or cold compost. Whether you choose hot or cold composting will depend on how much work you want to do and how quickly you want to have a finished product.
Hot composting, often called active composting, takes more effort than cold but you will be rewarded with faster results. Your “hot” pile will also generate enough heat to kill many diseases and weeds. Start the process on a warm day since the organisms work best in the heat on a well-drained site. Your pile or bin size should be 3-4 feet x 3-4 feet x 3-4 feet. Stockpile your ingredients next to your pile so you can assemble as much as possible at once. Chop all materials using either a shredder or by simply mowing over small piles. By breaking up your materials you encourage faster decomposition. Start with about a 6″ layer of “browns” followed by about a 2″ layer of “greens” and continue this pattern using all your available materials. For active composting it is a good idea to throw in a handful of an activator such as alfalfa meal, blood meal, fresh manure, or humus rich soil per layer. These substances will speed up the decomposition by boosting nitrogen and microorganisms. Water the layers until the materials are evenly moist. Now cover your pile with a lid or an old tarp. Every week to 10 days turn your pile mixing the layers as you turn until the materials are partially broken down and no longer hot. It should be ready to use in three to six weeks.
No-fuss cold composting is just as good for the garden, it just takes longer. There is no fussing with layers and ingredients or turning the pile. You can make cold compost anywhere, in a pile or a bin. You supply basically the same ingredients such as leaves, kitchen scraps, and grass clippings and four to five months you should have some great compost.
Bins, boxes, or tumblers are simply containers for making hot or cold compost. Several approaches to the bin if you would like to build your own are the wire mesh and wood, all wooden, three-sided cement blocks, or the simple and inexpensive three-sided straw bale bin. The bin should be at least 3′ x 4′ to allow for enough volume for proper decomposition. A metal or plastic garbage can is easily modified as a cold composter. Simply poke aeration holes in the sides and bottom and set the can or three bricks to allow for air passage underneath. The stationary plastic bin and plastic tumbler type are expensive to purchase and don’t usually hold enough for hot composting but are often animal proof and can be more attractive in your yard. If you feel super ambitious you can construct a triple section bin. Instead of turning your compost you simply move it along from compartment to compartment thus keeping a steady production of compost going. A very simple, effective method if you don’t mind digging is the pit or trench method. Dig a trench right in the garden about a foot deep piling the soil beside the trench. Now just add your composting material covering each layer with an inch or soil of the removed soil.. When the trench is full you start another one. This method encourages earthworms and in a few months even the most stubborn clay will be crumbly and easy to dig. It is an excellent way to improve the soil for a new bed.
Compost is a wonderful soil improving additive, topdressing, or mulch. You can use it anywhere in the garden. Finished compost should be used within a few months, but even the oldest compost improves the soil. So get busy digging, building, turning and piling and very soon your garden will thank you.
Cambell, Stu. Mulch It! Pownal, VT: Storey Books, Inc. 2001
Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1992.