If you have a yard and do any gardening whatsoever, you can benefit from compost—regardless of the size of your yard. Your composting area can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. The more effort you put into it, the bigger the payback. With very little effort, you can have compost that enriches your soil, saves you time and money, and benefits the environment.
Compost is a mix of dead and decaying organic matter, including dead leaves, grass, and manure, that you use to fertilize your soil. This might not sound appealing, but when you consider the benefits of composting, it makes a lot of sense.
Credit goes to a busy little community of fungi, microbes, insects, and other tiny critters that actively break down plant materials into a soft, brown, sweet-smelling, earthy material called compost.
Composting helps our communities and the environment. Yard and kitchen waste makes up about one third of the materials in landfills. As our communities grow and landfill solutions stymie our local governments, we are challenged to find alternative ways to deal with our waste.
Compost is inexpensive. You can put your compost directly into a hole in the ground or construct a bin from recycled materials. It’s up to you to add the organic materials that you would otherwise grind in your disposal or haul away to the landfill. Compost also reduces your dependence on expensive commercial fertilizers and soil amendments.
Compost improves your soil. It improves soil structure and texture and increases its ability to breathe and hold moisture. Compost improves soil fertility and helps balance the amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus—essential to healthy plants and root systems.
Composting is quick. Save your kitchen scraps in a bowl by the sink, and take them to the compost area every couple of days. When you work in the yard, put the clippings that can be composted into the compost pile, and bag the rest for pick-up. Depending on where you live and what you are composting, you can have garden ready compost in 2 to 6 months.
How to Get Started
Build your compost area in a shady place in your yard, convenient to the kitchen and close to your gardens. Protect it from the wind. The ground beneath it should be level and well drained. Leave enough room around the bin so that you can use a garden fork or shovel to turn the compost and remove it from the bin when it’s finished. If you are concerned about your neighbors, locate your compost area out of sight, or camouflage it with attractive, evergreen garden plants.
If you have a small garden or yard, consider a posthole compost pile. Dig a hole about 12 in. wide and 12 in. deep. Put compost into the hole, and cover it with a layer of garden soil. Continue this way, until you fill the hole. Cover it with a final layer of garden soil, and dig another posthole. Mix the composted matter into your soil, and begin your planting.
If you have more space, consider building a compost container with fencing material or hardware cloth. Purchase a section about 11 ft. long and 3 ft. high. Form it into an upright cylinder, and tie the ends together with wire.
You could also build a more solid bin of wood or railroad ties. This type of bin is more attractive and more permanent; however, it is also more expensive, and it doesn’t improve the quality of the compost.
There is an assortment of composting bins on the market. Most are molded plastic. Some offer turning methods and access doors. Some retailers sell compost turning tools and compost starters.
What to Compost
Compost needs three things: Organic matter, oxygen, and water. The organic matter should be a blend of dry, brown, carbon-rich material and moist, green, nitrogen-rich material. It should be layered loosely enough to allow oxygen to feed the composting critters, and there should be enough water so that the compost is about as damp as a moist sponge.
You can compost most of your kitchen waste, including vegetable peels, apple cores, eggshells, tea bags, and coffee grounds and filters. You can compost lawn clippings, twigs, hay, straw, and leaves. For more information on what to compost and what not to compost, see the Composting Checklist .
Many communities are actively involved in composting programs. Some provide classes or composting bins free of charge. Check your community website, or call them directly to find out what’s available.
How to Maintain Your Compost
To some extent, the type of compost bin you have determines how you maintain it. In general, you put newer materials on top, turn and mix them in, then remove the finished compost from the bottom. With the newer high tech bins, this might vary.
Turn, or mix, your compost periodically. Use a broom handle to poke holes into it, or turn it over and loosen it with a garden fork. During the warmer months, turn it weekly, and keep it moist. During the cold months, turn it monthly. If it’s impossible to turn, cover it with a sheet of plastic to keep rain and snow from leaching out the nutrients. Another option is to cover it with a thick layer of straw, hay, or alfalfa. The extra layer decomposes during the winter and provides insulation. In the spring, mix it in for an extra helping of nutrients.
When you add food scraps, put them in the center of the pile, and cover them with soil or finished compost. This helps them compost more quickly and deters hungry rodents.
Don’t add too much of any one type of compost material, or you might slow the composting process. An overabundance of grass clippings or leaves can shift the balance. Keep a good mix of both green and brown organic materials.
Healthy compost does not attract flies or rodents, nor does it have an unpleasant odor. Finished compost is soft, crumbly, and dark brown—and well worth your composting efforts.
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