If you want glorious plants and abundant crops, then you want compost. If you want to turn unworkable hard pan into the Garden of Eden, then you need compost. If you have kitchen scraps like vegetable peelings and egg shells, garden refuse like leaves or grass clippings, then you have the makings for compost. Get ready for some fun!
My brother had vegetable beds that he kept two feet deep in compost and he had to stake his tomatoes with tree stakes. He gave tomatoes out all over town. Get ready!
Compost works wonders. Watch the video at right for great inspiration to compost.
What Is Compost?
Compost is an assortment of organic materials that have combined as they decompose into dark, sweet-smelling soil. The compost is filled with easily absorbed nutrients and when combined with soil is called “humus.” The humus has amazing capacity to absorb and hold water, combating plant drought. Furthermore, if the compost pile has heated to the recommended 140 degrees or higher, weed seeds are cooked — you can spread compost without spreading weeds.
As a result, compost makes a fine garden mulch. It mulches, feeds, and maintains moisture in one season. At the end of the season, you dig it into your garden bed and it builds soil for the following season.
Watch the two videos below which continue the series in the first video above. Watch these two and get a practical overview of composting in your own yard.
How To Compost: Two Approaches
Depending on how much land you have at your gardening disposal and on how much time and energy you plan to devote to composting, there are two approaches you can take. The casual method requires space but less time. The more precise method can be used on as little space as a trash can would require, but it does depend on a larger time investment.
How To Compost: The Casual Method
The casual method is simply designating a space for piling all your yard and garden refuse that is appropriate for your garden. If you live in an area with regular rainfall you will not even have to water down the pile. It will sit and slowly decompose. Depending on how the size and density of the organics, they could take a year or more to decompose into usable compost. Turning the pile now and then will speed up the process considerably. Regardless, the pile does relax into a heap of sweet, dark garden goodness. Because the casual piles do not always heat up to the optimum 140 degrees, there is usually an assortment of weed seeds ready to spring up from this compost method.
This method requires two separate spots for piles – one for the pile that is decomposing and one for the pile that is currently being built. Not many gardeners are fortunate enough to have this option. For many of us, the more precise method is called for.
How To Compost: The Precise Method
The more precise method of compost building requires attention to the dimension of the pile, the materials composing it, the watering, and the handling of the composting organics.
- Size: The ideal size for a compost bin is 3 by 3 by 3. This requires some sort of structure. The structure can be of your own doing and as simple as a chicken wire tube with a plastic trash bag on the inside. It can be a commercial piece that runs the gamut of sizes and shapes.
We have a compost drum, a three-box homemade setup, and a rotation system of burying garbage in a fallow bed. All three methods of compost making have their purpose. You can always find something that works for you.
The importance of the size relates to the pile heating to 140 degrees or more. The heat is essential to fast compost making. Many of the commercial contraptions do not come near the 3 by 3 by 3 size you would use if putting in your own compost bins. But the commercial designs are put together to produce the needed heat.
- Materials: You will need an assortment of both green and brown materials. Green materials might be weeds, grass clippings, or produce scraps from the kitchen. These greens are high in nitrogen and help break down the browns. Browns are leaves, dry weeds, sawdust, wood chips and the like. The green materials really cause the compost to heat up and break down the brown materials, so having plenty is essential. Lacking an abundance of green material, add manure to heat up the compost. You can add up to 25% manure to a compost project. Use compost from herbivore animals, not carnivores. Steer, horse, chicken and rabbit manures are the best. Depending on where you live you could be using manure from wild turkeys or water buffalo.
- Watering: Good composting requires water, air, and heat. Too much water can eliminate the air and the heat. A water-logged pile will compact and turn to slime. To prevent this disappointment, make certain that the pile has excellent drainage and has a tarp or cover to keep torrential rains from causing trouble. Your compost should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge, no wetter, no drier. You will probably need to do some hand sprinkling during the composting process.
- Handling: Your compost should be turned often. How often depends on the size of your operation. For the 3 by 3 by 3 structured compost, turn it at least once a week in warm weather, at least twice a month in cool weather. Turn the outside compost to the middle much the same as you would knead bread dough. The middle is where the heat is. As you turn the sides to the middle, they break down quickly. At some point there will nothing left to break down further. It will be dark and friable, sweet and ready for the garden.
If you have a commercial unit, follow the instructions that accompany it. We have one unit that is a barrel that sits on its side. We turn it with a crank just a bit every few days. It is pretty cool and very easy!
Because we live in the Sequoia National Forest, it is inevitable that we get an assortment of small sticks in our finished compost. My personal preference is to pull these to the side and use them as fire starter (We heat with wood.) An abundance of wood in the soil can tie up nitrogen for the year in breaking down the wood. I would rather not have that happening. I could set the sticks to the side and let them break down by themselves over a year or two, but instead, they help keep me warm.
You will find some great information online for composting specifics. Some writers are a bit anal in their approach and make the process seem much too precise and time consuming. Do not be deterred. Work with the project and you will discover a variety of ways to recycle your organics and build fine compost. Here are a couple of resources to start you off.
- The State of California has done a commendable job in assembling practical and basic instruction for composting.
- Journey to Forever will capture your attention and grip your heart, especially if you have children at home or are involved with education. This is their incredible green and sustainable project.
- Video demo of two very different solutions to composting.