How to Make Compost for your Garden
Every year, hundreds of thousands of tons of organic matter ends up in landfills. These sadly wasted fruit and vegetable pieces, leftovers, etc. are full of nutrients and vitamins that your garden soil needs to stay healthy and productive (and to keep your plants healthy too!). Making compost is, simply, the act of taking organic matter (vegetable and plant pieces) and turning them into rich friable (crumbly) soil for your garden.
Beyond the important benefit of having produce that is chock-full of life-giving vitamins and nutrients (far exceeding grocery store produce), a vegetable garden that has been well supplied with compost will also yield a MUCH higher quantity of produce.
Why make compost?
- Applying compost to your garden soil has an almost immediate and direct impact on the health and well being of your family (by adding vitamins and minerals that your bodies need to your garden-fresh produce).
- Composting, as a form of recycling, greatly reduces the volume of garbage going to the landfills.
- You’ll reduce the amount of soil additives and fertilizers needed for your garden.
- It's organic
- Your garden plants will be healthier
- You will get a higher volume of fruit and vegetables per plant in your garden.
- In areas where you’re charged by the volume for trash removal, you can actually save money by composting your unused produce!
Learning how to make compost for use in the garden improves the soil structure by providing better aeration and improving the soils ability to hold moisture. It is also a source of plant nutrients. Additionally, compost used as mulch (or mixed with soil) can help prevent plant diseases.
In simple terms, to make compost is the act of saving plant matter (whether from your yard or from your kitchen) and storing it an environment that speeds-up decomposition.
For example, you can make compost with:
- clippings from your yard plants
- grass clippings
- vegetable or fruit ends or peelings
- leftover vegetables from a meal
- coffee grounds
- egg shells are often also included to increase the calcium content of the soil.
- shredded paper products can also be included, but be careful to include only those that won’t pass along any chemical residue to your garden.
- saw dust (make sure the wood was not chemically treated)
- livestock manure
Do NOT include meat scraps, animal bi-products or dog/cat waste in your compost pile. These often contain diseases and parasites that you don’t want in the garden.
Learnign how to make compost can be as simple or detailed/complex as you want to go with it (depending mostly upon how much time you want to spend on it). When making your composting plans, you should also think about how much material you have available to make compost with (how much space do you need), and how quickly you want results.
Slow (Cold) Composting
This method of making compost requires no maintenance, but takes longer to get results. Make sure that you don’t include plants or weeds with seeds, or diseased plants. With this method, the temperatures don’t get high enough to kill the seeds (so they don't sprout in your garden!) or to kill any plant-disease causing organisms.
With this method, you simply pick a spot in your yard and pile up the items you wish to make compost with. Chopping or shredding them will help speed the process a little. You will find that this method leaves larger chunks of undecomposed matter, which can be removed, if desired. Be patient, when using this method. It can take many months (even up to a year in some climates) to work.
Fast (Hot) Composting
This method of composting requires more work, but you get faster and better results. Once you learn how to compost with this method, composted material can be ready (in ideal circustances) within a few weeks. You will find that it is slower in the late fall, winter, and early spring, and a faster process in the late spring, summer and early fall. In other words, it coincides with nature’s growing season in your area.
- Pick the location for your compost pile. You’ll want it in an area that drains well, that’s fairly level, near the garden, but not too near the house (might be a little odiferous).
- Determine how you want to contain your pile (build a bin, or put it right on the ground.) If putting it on the ground, you may wish to put a layer of sticks down first to help air circulate around the pile better. Determine the size of your pile/bin. A minimum of 3 feet x 3 feet by 3 feet is recommended. Optimal is 4’ or 5’ in each direction.
- Start building your pile, by using equal alternating layers of high carbon (dried leaves and twigs) and high nitrogen (clover, fresh grass clippings, vegetable/fruit scraps, manure) materials. Add a few shovels of soil to each layer (adds microorganisms to help in the decomposition process). Layers should be 4” to 6” thick.
- Keep the top of the heap slightly concave to catch rainwater.
- Water. Keep the pile moist, but not saturated. Check it daily.
- Poke a few holes in the sides of the compost pile, to help aeration.
- The pile will heat up and then begin to cool. When the pile’s internal temperature reaches about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, start turning the material in the pile. (You can check the temperature with a compost thermometer, or just stick your arm into the pile – it’s ready when it’s too hot to the touch.) A pitch fork is generally the tool of choice in turning the compost pile materials.
Move materials from the center to the outside and visa versa. Turn the materials every day or two. During the growing season, this should produce compost for you in less than a month. If you turn it only every other week, it will take a few months for your compost to be ready.
- Finished compost will be dark brown or black, be sweet smelling, have no traces of the original matter, and be cool and crumbly to the touch.
If the compost pile is too hot, you have too much nitrogen. Try adding more dried leaves and sticks/carbon material.
If nothing is happening in your compost pile, you may not have enough nitrogen materials, water or air.
Vermicomposting uses earthworms to make compost. This process can be done year round in your basement (or garage in more temperate areas), and takes very little space.
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Note: the advice and information contained herein is based upon our experience and study. As with any advice, please apply at your own discretion.