It’s often said that compost is “black gold” when added to your lawn or garden. A natural alternative to chemical fertilizers, compost restores vitality to depleted soil and can even repair soils that have been destroyed by pesticides. Microscopic organisms in compost help aerate soil, break down organic material for plant use and ward off disease. Compost increases the amount of moisture the soil retains, so you need to water less, and it helps prevent erosion.
In a nutshell, compost makes your plants stronger, healthier and more prolific. It’s also free, easy to make and great for the environment. Purchasing compost may be the best option for some, but the trend even among urban gardeners is to make your own. Doing so has one big advantage: You know exactly what ingredients have been used to make the final product.
Like chefs in their own kitchens, those who compost can be territorial and highly opinionated about their garden soil. Compost methodology is like Grandma’s family lasagna recipe. Grandma is none too happy if you dare to modify her time-tested ingredients or cooking instructions. Composters seem to be just as territorial about their methods.
Below is “Roadkill” Gil’s not-so-secret compost recipe, a smorgasbord compiled from friends, YouTube videos and gardening classes. But the most important ingredient is the experience gained from many years of trial and (mostly) error. This recipe is a proven winner, but I won’t be offended if you spice it up to suit your own tastes.
The Cooking Pot
First you’ll need a place to compost, preferably an area of at least 3 square feet to maintain moisture well. As the size of the garden increases, so should the size of your compost facility. You can just heap your debris into a pile and let nature take its course. Organic material will eventually break down into humus, no matter how or where it is stored. However, some sort of container will keep your pile neater, conserve moisture and discourage critters and flies from raiding the bin.
One of the easiest methods is to wire together four shipping pallets, creating a bin with vents for air and water to penetrate. Some folks form a circle with chicken wire or build a box with leftover lumber. You can even rig a regular garbage can to mix the materials by rolling the can. The internet is loaded with websites and videos on how to build your own compost bin.
An alternative is to buy a commercial bin. Often, these bins offer better insulation, which helps the pile maintain higher temperatures even in winter. One commercial option that greatly speeds up the process is a compost tumbler. Although usually a little more expensive and limited in space, a tumbler is easy to turn, which speeds up the composting process by keeping the microbes aerated and active.
Layer, Stir & Bake
Composting is not an exact science, but a healthy pile should contain an average carbon (brown material) to nitrogen (green material) ratio of about 30 to 1. You can achieve this ratio by adding 2/3 unshredded brown material with 1/3 green material.
Nitrogen or protein-rich matter, such as manures, food scraps, green lawn clippings, coffee grounds and green leaves provide raw materials for making enzymes. Cover fresh, nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich material, which provides aeration to speed up the composting process, to eliminate foul odors and to help produce a fluffy compost pile.
Carbon materials include branches, dried leaves, bark, sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, corn stalks, coffee filters, pine needles, eggshells, straw, peat moss and wood ash. Too much of one material will slow down the composting process. If you have all leaves, all grass clippings or an overload of any other single type of material, it can throw off the balance of the pile.
Start your compost pile on bare ground to allow worms to aerate the compost. Make a base of 3 to 4 inches of straw or twiggy material for good air circulation. Add alternating 3- to 4-inch layers of wet-green and dry-brown material. Add a few shovelfuls of soil to your pile from time to time. Form the pile into a volcano shape, with a hole in the top to capture water and allow for air circulation. Cover your pile with a mover’s quilt or burlap, which will keep the animals out but let some air in. Often, moving companies like U-Haul will let you have their old moving blankets.
Turn It Over
The ingredients in a compost bin should be properly mixed and watered, and the layers need to be swapped around in a process called “turning over” the pile. If the compost is not turned regularly, available carbon sources such as leaves and dried grass clippings can mat together, further reducing aeration and slowing the composting process.
Turn the pile as much or as little as you like, depending on your desired turnaround time. For the quickest results, give the pile a turn twice a month with a pitchfork or shovel. Once your compost pile is established, add new materials by mixing them in, rather than by adding them in layers.
You can sometimes see steam rising from a compost pile that is “cooking” at the optimum temperature (130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit), especially during the turning process. Your hand should be almost too hot for comfort when reaching into the center of the pile. If you want a precise temperature reading, you can purchase a compost thermometer. A hot pile is important not just for speedy composting but also to kill all the seeds you don’t want germinating in your garden.
My friend Tana Comer, owner of Eaton’s Creek Organics in Joelton, Tennessee, complimented me on my neighborhood when she dropped by to give me vegetable gardening pointers. I chuckled when I realized she was talking about all the raw compostable material available for the taking in my community. She commented that my area has very few chemically treated lawns and lots of leaf bags on the curb. Tana is what some people call a “leaf fairy.” Folks put their bagged leaves or grass clippings on the curb, and they magically disappear within days. The leaf fairies are organic gardeners who pick up yard debris to feed their compost piles, while reducing landfill waste.
Unfortunately, carbon-based materials like leaves are less available during the winter, spring and summer months. That means stowing leaves in the fall to have enough material to add to your pile throughout the year. You can also bag green matter (grass clippings) in spring to add to the pile year-round. You can even pick up used coffee grounds from coffee shops and add it as green matter throughout the year.
It’s the finishing touches that make Grandma’s lasagna and your compost pile really shine. First of all, you must have at least two piles if you want to keep adding material year-round. Five to six months before you add compost to your garden, stop adding to the pile. That’s when you can start on your second pile. This will give the first pile enough time to fully compost before adding it to your soil.
Organic matter can function as compost only after it has thoroughly decomposed, enabling it to release nutrients into the soil. Any material that hasn’t composted will rot, which is bad for your soil and everything growing in it. Also, animals might dig up your garden and could get sick. When finished, compost should look, feel and smell like rich, dark soil. You shouldn’t be able to recognize any of the items you put in there.
Apply finished compost to your garden about two to four weeks before you plant, giving it time to integrate and stabilize within the soil. A final consideration is that compost should be used as a soil additive and not exclusively as the growing medium.
Since “Roadkill” Gil’s composting methodology was stolen from several sources rather than handed down as a family secret, feel free to refine it to your own tastes. I think any chef worth his salt would admit that a good recipe is a work in progress. Just don’t try to pass that one over on Grandma.
This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.