Making Compost

Terry L. Yockey

Now that the shortage of landfill space is becoming so critical, composting is something we should all do. Compost is sometimes referred to as "black gold" because it recycles leaves, food scraps and grass clippings into a perfect food and organic mulch for all our plants. For years I bought sack after sack of sterilized cow manure every summer. After I started making compost, I rarely have to buy any additional amendments. I put some compost in every planting hole I dig in the garden, and around all my plants as they come up in the spring. This not only feeds them, but keeps the weeds from gaining a stronghold.

Composting can be as simple as just making a pile next to your garage. Nature will take its course, and eventually you will have compost. There are ways to speed up the process, however. The organism that breaks down the organic matter is bacteria, so if you give the bacteria an ideal environment, you will have usable compost that much sooner.

A good rule of thumb when making compost is to use equal parts brown and green. Brown materials such as leaves are usually full of carbon, and green things such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps, contain nitrogen. It's better to mix everything together evenly because when you layer it tends to pack down. If you do use grass clippings, remember not to use pesticides on your lawn. This can be harmful to your flowers or vegetables when you use the compost on them.

Another ingredient for success, is moisture. Don't let the pile get too wet or too dry. Either way, you will inhibit decomposition.

The third ingredient is oxygen. The best way to keep the air circulating is to turn your pile every once in a while with a pitchfork. The more you turn it, the faster it will cook down into compost.

The first thing people ask me is "Will there be any odor?". I have never had a problem. If you do, there is probably too much moisture in your pile. Dairy or meat products should never be added, as well. If you eliminate these and you still think your pile smells, it may be too compacted to let oxygen circulate. Try mixing everything around and see if that helps.

My "tumbling compost mixer"I do use a lot of vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps, so I bought one of the prefabricated composters from Gardener's Supply icon. It keeps everything totally contained and out of sight. Before this tumbling composter, I had one of the square bin types that sit on the ground. I found that not only was it hard to mix and aerate, but mice and other rodents found it to be a very comfy living environment. With this model the mice can't get in and I can collect my vegetable scraps all winter in the bin and then let them cook all summer with healthy garden refuse and grass clippings. In the fall I remove everything and mix it with my chopped up autumn leaves. When spring planting time comes, I have a large pile of usable compost and I'm already working on next years compost. Tip: Put a basin or old ice cream bucket under your tumbler and as it cooks you'll get lots of "compost tea" to spread over your herb and flower gardens.

The easiest way to get started composting is to make a pile in an unobtrusive place in your backyard. A good size is 3' x 3' x 3' up to 5' x 5' x 5'. Larger then that doesn't allow air to reach the microbes in the center. Lay black plastic under the pile and also over the top. This keeps all the nutrients from washing out and too much moisture from getting in.

Red Wigglersicon

Chopping the materials will help speed up the decomposition process. You can do that easily with your lawn mower. If you really want to speed up the process, add some worms. Last summer I bought some "Red Wigglersicon". By the end of the season I had hundreds of the little eating machines working on my compost pile!

Another good way to compost is to set up a snow fence around some posts. When it is time to turn your pile, simple move the posts and fencing to a nearby spot. When you refill the bin, you will be mixing and aerating your compost pile.

I don't recommend adding weeds or diseased materials to the pile. True, if you do everything right it will be hot enough to kill most weeds and their seeds, but I'm a pessimist by nature. I'd rather err on the cautious side.

The most important thing to remember is that you can't go wrong. No matter what you do--eventually you will have useable compost. So don't throw away those valuable leaves and grass clippings when instead they could be feeding your lawn and garden.

Read more on "Composting Made Easy" or How to Choose a Composter at Gardeners Supply.


Or try indoor worm composting with the red wigglers!

Gardener's Supply Company

A worm composting how-to video from the Recycling Assn. of MN


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