You know that compost is the gold standard for soil, but are you afraid to make it? Put aside your squeamish phobias. Anyone can make compost, even if the closest you’ve gotten to it is in sealed bags at a garden center.
If you live in the country, a pile in the ground will suffice, but most suburban and urban gardeners will want a compost bin because it looks tidier, tends to keep out pests and can break down materials faster, a process called hot composting. Hot composting can achieve a finished product in a few months, vs. cold composting, which can take up to a year. Master gardener Charlie Shiner teaches a composting class at the Bob Jones Nature Center in Southlake, Texas, and has a few pointers.
• First, find a bin that’s right for you. Shiner says he has four criteria for compost bins: They have to be durable, attractive, affordable and convenient. You can easily construct one with lumber and chicken wire or a steel drum from the many blueprints online, such as at the University of Missouri Cooperative Extension. If you decide to buy one, there are three basic types, wire caged or plastic enclosed bins and tumblers. If your bin will be situated in the sun, make sure it’s sturdy and UV-protected. A bin also has to be convenient and easy to load, easy to aerate, which greatly speeds the decomposition, and easy to access the finished product.
• Once you have your bin in place, fill it alternatively with brown matter (carbon) and green matter (nitrogen) at a ratio of 25:1. Materials high in carbon include leaves, sawdust, wood ashes, straw and wood chips. Things high on nitrogen include uncooked vegetable scraps, grass clippings and garden waste.
• Especially in dry climates, Shiner says, “You’ve got to keep the pile moist.” And while he notes that a dry compost pile doesn’t stop the decomposition process, it will slow it down appreciably.
• Watch your balance of carbon and nitrogen. Provided in correct proportions, your finished product will be black, crumbly Earth. Too much nitrogen, and you’ll have a stinky, slimy mess on your hands. Too much carbon and your pile could cool off. The temperature of your pile should reach an internal temperature of between 110 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Chop before loading. Shiner runs over plant scraps with his lawn mover before loading it into his compost bin. The smaller the particles that go into the bin, the faster the finished product.
• Don’t forget to aerate. By turning your compost pile—either with a pitch fork, flipping it over in the tumbler or whatever method you choose, you’re introducing air, which “heats” up your compost, helping to kill pathogens and weed seeds. Piles that are turned on a regular basis also tend to keep pests away.
“The most you should turn it is every third day,” Shiner says. “More than that, you’re shocking it,” or disrupting the microbial activity that breaks down the organic matter.
• Keep meat, oil and dairy products out. Manure from plant-eating animals is fine, but most experts recommend keeping out human, cat and dog waste because it can spread pathogens.
• Above all, your compost bin must be covered. Even in the country, vegetable scraps laid on top of a pile is ground feeding, not composting. Simply dig a hole and bury the scraps at the bottom of the bin. Food tossed on top of a pile without a covering, he jokes, “I can guarantee will attract every varmint within a two-mile radius.”
Above all, composting is an efficient way to transform food and yard waste into free fertilizer. Who doesn’t like that?