It’s no secret: the best way to have a good crop is to start with high-quality soil. Unfortunately, fertile soil takes many months to develop, and in the colder seasons it’s easy to neglect our summer garden plots. While your garden rests this winter, why not start up a new compost that will plump your summer produce, reduce your household garbage and show off your commitment to making the world a greener place?
Compost, or humus, is made up of decomposed organic materials that probably end up in your kitchen trash can every day. With proper preparation and attention, a healthy dose of compost around planting time benefits all soil types, adding enriching nutrients and improving drainage in both light and heavy soils. Creating your own compost doesn’t take much: just plan, layer and turn, and nature’s processes will do the rest!
Plan it: Pile or Bin?
Before your start, decide whether it’s most convenient for you to build your compost in a pile or in a bin. Many gardeners chose the tried-and-true piling technique for the added benefits of worms and insects crawling in from underneath and pushing the decomposing process along. Of course, with the good critters come the bad, and larger animals such as raccoons, opossums and neighborhood pets might want to dig around in your garden’s
future food as well.
Most modern composters favor the bin, which offers both security from unwelcomed pests and the tidiness of a well-contained pile. Bins can be bought or built, but should be designed with the goals of portability, drainage and maximizing heat in mind. Gardening pros at Eartheasy.com recommend fashioning your bin out of a heavy-duty garbage can. Drill 1.5-cm holes at regular intervals to keep the pile aerated, and bolt a two-by-four through the center of
the bin for easy mixing – just lay the can on its side, and roll!
Pick a spot convenient to your kitchen, as you won’t want to carry your table scraps far after every meal. You’ll also want to be sure that you can easily remove the compost from the bin when planting time comes around.
Layer it: Think Brown and Green
Once you have your location secured, it’s time to think about layers. A healthy compost requires a careful balance of carbon and nitrogen,
or brown and green materials.
Brown materials include yard waste such as leaves (ideally shredded), dried grass, and straw, as well as household waste like wood ash, newspapers (sans glossy finish or colored ink), and dryer lint from natural fibers. As you start your compost, build a healthy layer of brown materials on the bottom and moisten them before adding a layer of green.
Green materials might be table scraps (no meat or bones), grass clippings, overripe vegetables and fruits, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds (filter and all!), tea leaves and horse, cow and chicken manure. If you don’t have enough green material to add to your pile, the National Gardening Association suggests tossing a few cups of cotton seed or alfalfa meal into the mix instead. They will provide the necessary nitrogen to aid the break-down process.
Layer your brown and green materials alternatingly, maintaining a balance of two-parts brown, one-part green. Leave out any highly processed goods, pet manures and diseased plants. Some produce such as oranges, bananas, and peaches which have been treated heavily with pesticides should be avoided. Also be sure that any weeds you add haven’t gone to seed yet, as once introduced into your garden via compost they will spread faster than ever!
Turn it: You Know You Want To
Once you have layered your materials, the only maintenance your compost needs is a good turn every now and again. About twice a month, take a shovel and lift the bottom of the pile onto the top. That’s it! This not only aerates the entire stack, but more importantly redistributes the heat emitted by the decomposing process. When you uncover your pile, a hot, pungent smell should rise to you immediately, letting you know that all is going according to plan.
When you remove your compost in the spring, be sure to plant something in the spot where your pile or bin formerly sat. The soil beneath a compost can become highly enriched with the nutrients flowing down from rain or waterings, and if you move your pile every year, you get double the benefits.
With materials you already have on hand and as little as one afternoon, you could be on your way to your best garden yet!
Did you know that composting can divert up to 30 percent of your household waste away from landfills and toward productive use? To read more about the benefits of compost for our earth and your garden, check out eartheasy.com/grow_compost.