If you have gardened at all you will have heard of one of the gardener’s best friends, the compost pile. If you are an organic gardener, your compost pile will be one of the most vital parts of your gardening efforts. While composting is relatively easy to do, it is important to understand what compost is, why your garden needs and the best way to make your own compost pile. Composting is one of the best ways to avoid the use of chemicals in your garden. Not only does it feed your plants the nutrients they need to grow healthy, compost creates a friendly environment for beneficial organisms. These organisms restore health to your soil and provide the optimal growing conditions for your plants.
A Composting Primer
Composting is a process by which you gather up organic materials which then break down into a humus commonly called compost. Compost gathers much of your organic waste in the home and the garden to create a mixture that is rich in nutrients for your garden. You can put compost directly on your garden or use it to make a compost tea. The tea adds another layer of protection by feeding your plants and encouraging the growth of beneficial microbes.
A compost pile needs four main ingredients; water, air, dead plant materials, and live plant material. Dead or “brown” materials provide carbon, which provides energy to organisms breaking down the compost. Live green matter provides nitrogen necessary for organisms to build cell structure. A proper balance of carbon and nitrogen is necessary for the decomposition process that is responsible for producing a high-quality compost.
Why is Composting is Important
For decades there was a trend towards using chemical fertilizers to feed plants, and pesticides to kill pests that damage the plants. It only took a while for farmers to realize that these products did more harm than good. When you use pesticides, they not only kill off the bad organisms, they also kill off beneficial organisms which feed off them. Soon the pests return and this time they have no competition. Their numbers and the damage that they create are greater than before the use of pesticides. This is why production farmers must continuously spray crops in an effort to keep damaging organisms at bay. Synthetic fertilizers can also harm beneficial organisms and as a result soil balance and health are compromised.
There are many different composting methods available for small farms and gardens. Composting is no longer just for farms; any backyard gardener can compost table scraps and lawn clippings. Smaller composting units are perfect for the patio and can produce a decent amount of organic matter. Compost can be made in simple piles or put in bins or containers. Some people dig trenches directly in their gardens to compost in. Methods include:
- Containers – You can buy a wealth of composting containers just about anywhere you buy garden supplies. You can also make your own bins with materials you might have at home. The only caution is to make sure to use untreated wood if you are building a container. Treated lumber containing toxic compounds that leach into the compost and are harmful to humans and animals.
- Rotating Containers – These units are popular because they keep compost contained and make the work of turning compost easy. Rotating systems can be expensive, but are they are ideal for urban lots where space is at a premium.
- Heaps – Heap composting does not require a structure but can quickly become overwhelming and difficult to tend. You must also be aware that adding kitchen waste to an open heap can attract pests.
- Trench or Pit Composting – Trench composting requires no special bin and is a simple way of composting kitchen scraps. Simply did a one-foot deep hole in your garden and place your kitchen scraps in it.
- Vermicomposting – This process uses worm bins and red worms to compost your food waste. This is ideal for gardeners with very little space and composting is faster because of the addition of worms in the composting process.
Getting Ready to Compost
As you get ready to start your compost project consider what type of composting you want to use. This really depends a lot on the space you have and how large your garden is. You may also want to take into consideration your time, since you must turn a compost pile twice a week. A rotating container takes slightly less work because you can manually turn it every few days. In most cases spending a lot of money on a composter is not necessary but can make your job easier.
The best spot for composting is a place where it can get plenty of air. Don’t worry about smell if you build and care for your mix properly there should be little or no smell to your compost. If there are any animals around, make sure you have a secure bin or container to keep them from getting into it. Many gardeners even keep several transitional containers to put kitchen waste in before putting it in their compost. This breaks down the kitchen waste before putting it in the pile.
You won’t need a lot of extra equipment for your composting but there are a few things that you might want to have on hand. You will need a garden fork or a compost aerator if you plan turn your compost. You might also want to obtain some sort of sieve to sift any big chunks left behind. There are sieves made especially for this purpose, or you can make your own. Provided you mix your ingredients properly and care for your pile, inoculants and other additives are unnecessary.
Ingredients of a High-Quality Compost
One of the most important decisions involved in making high quality organic matter is taking into careful consideration what you will put in your bin. The most important part of this is creating the proper ratio of green materials to brown ones. Layer compost with two to three parts brown (carbon rich) to one-part green (nitrogen carrying) materials. Make sure you water each layer before you add a new one. Green materials can include grass clippings, plant parts from the garden, and fruit and vegetable scrapings from your kitchen. Brown materials can include paper or newspaper, dead leaves, coffee grounds and filters, and hay or straw. Not everything is compostable, avoid using:
- Dairy or Eggs
- Pet feces
- Any yard waste treated with pesticides
- Diseased plants
- Treated wood
- Coated paper or milk cartons
Make sure you mix the organic matter every three or four days for the fastest results. If you take good care of your compost you should have a rich dark mixture within a few months. You can also speed decomposition some by shredding everything and using only smaller pieces. How fast it breaks down will entirely depend on how large your pile is and how you tend it.
A Word About Compost Temperature
If you have ever turned a compost pile you may notice that it steams. This is because a healthy compost will get hot. The temperature of your composting pile or bin is important because it kills off weed seeds and pathogens you don’t want in your garden. The heat also aids in decomposition. Some gardeners will monitor the compost pile with a compost thermometer. If you do choose to use a thermometer, you will be looking for 135 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit in the first few days and weeks. Don’t let the temperature go over 160 degrees or it can kill the beneficial organisms. To avoid letting your pile get too hot, turn it with a garden fork if it gets to 155 degrees. Once the compost starts to cool down it will be close to completion and ready to use.
Using Your Compost
Using compost is the easy part. Once the organic matter has broken down to the smallest particles, you can sift out any larger bits that are still remaining. Transfer your compost to another pile or put it directly in your garden. You can also use compost to make a compost tea, which makes the nutrients more quickly available to your plants. Either way your composting efforts are the ideal way to fertilize your garden and increase the vitality of your soil. Doing so not only alleviates the need for synthetic fertilizers, but it helps improve soil structure and increase beneficial organisms in your garden. This leads to healthier, more vigorous plants that are less susceptible to disease and insect damage.