If you’ve been gardening for any length of time, you’ve realized that great soil is the key to healthy plants. How you get that nutrient-rich soil is by adding organic material. This is International Compost Awareness Week so we thought it'd be a good time to share some composting basics.
Keep It Simple
Encyclopedic-sized volumes have been written on how to compost and if you wish to, you can make it as complicated and intricate as you like. You can fill spread sheets with temperature, time lines, and green/brown mix calculations, but unless you want to make it your full-time job, creating compost is as simple as making a pile or digging a small hole.
The easiest way to compost is to bury it as you get it. Say you had a banana with breakfast and salad for lunch, just go out in the garden that afternoon and dig a small hole and bury that banana peel and the leftover lettuce. You can also collect those vegetable scraps in a coffee can for a week or so and do that quick burying in a larger hole each weekend.
The side benefit of burying compostable scraps right away is that you never have to set aside precious growing space for a compost pile. But what if you have so much to compost that burying it would be a major chore? Then just pile it up.
Designate a space for your compost pile in an area that is convenient, though out of your main line of sight. Compost piles are terrific, but no one ever claimed they are beautiful. The location should be fairly level and at least a foot away from any tree, fence, or walls.
Once you find an appropriate space, you can start piling up your compost materials. A pile of 3 feet in height and width is ideal for getting things cooking and keeping it manageable.
You can have it as a free-floating pile, though you will most likely want to set up some kind of containment system for it to keep it neat and tidy.
There are plans online and in many books for building compost bins. If you have the space, you can recycle wooden pallets and create a big, open box. You can also build bins out of concrete blocks, hardware cloth, or chicken-wire. Some local governments such as Montgomery County, MD, provide free compost bins to residents.
If you have limited space or are worried about rodents accessing your kitchen waste, a metal garbage can with tight-fitting lid is ideal. To use it for composting, just drill in many holes around the sides and on the bottom to allow the compost to breathe and moisture to enter and exit the mix. You may also want to elevate it on a few bricks or cinder blocks to allow drainage and air to circulate.
Finally, you can purchase compost bins by mailorder or from your local garden center. There are many clever designs and new systems. Ask your neighbors and fellow gardeners about which they like best or would advise against.
Add the Ingredients
Once you have your system set up, it is time to add your compostable materials. You’ll likely have plenty of leaves to rake in autumn and fresh grass clippings from mowing your lawn. If not, ask around and you’ll find plenty of folks who will gladly give you this garden gold.
As you pull out your end-of-season annuals, throw those on the pile along with any plant trimmings, weeds, and spent flowers from your gardening chores.
Also, add in your kitchen vegetable waste and don’t forget to collect the veggie waste from your workplace as well. While you’re at it, you can add coffee grounds, tea bags, nutshells, dryer lint, shredded newspaper, straw, cotton rags, and cardboard rolls.
What Not to Compost
There are a few things you do not want to introduce to your pile. They include any dairy products, pet waste, meat, fish, bones, and fats such as lard or oils.
Be careful as well with your plant waste that you add. If the plant is diseased, dispose of it with your trash and keep it out of the compost/mulch screen. That goes for any poison ivy or oak you pull as well.
Mix It Up
Compost piles need two things to work properly — air and moisture. Give your pile a turn every time you add new ingredients or just do so once a week or month, depending on your schedule and how fast you want the pile to convert to usable compost.
The compost pile needs to be wet to decay. Create a concave hole in the top of the pile to allow rainwater to collect and funnel in. You may also need to add water during dry periods. You want it moist, but not soaking wet.
Use It Up
It can take abut a year from first ingredients to finished compost. You will know it is done by when you can grab a handful and it is dark-brown, fine, crumbly, and smells sweet. Use it as a mulch or top dressing around all your plants. It will suppress weeds at the same time as adding nutrients back into your soil as it decays. Use it also as part of your soil mix when potting up containers and planting perennials, shrubs, and trees in your garden.