Gardening 101: Make Your Own Compost

The benefits of compost are numerous: It builds good soil structure; enables soil to retain nutrients, water, and air; protects against drought; helps maintain a neutral pH, and protects plants from many diseases commonly found in the garden. It also feeds earthworms and other microbial life in the soil. All of this adds up to healthier plants!  Whether you’re growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, or flowers, compost will dramatically improve the health of your soil and therefore the health of your plant, too, making it more nutritious (if edible!) and more beautiful. In addition, home composting will save you money as a gardener, since you won’t have to purchase as many other soil conditioners.  And you will likely cut down on the amount of trash that your home generates.

What is Compost?

A mixture of various decaying organic substances, such as dead leaves, kitchen scraps, or manure, compost is used for fertilizing soil.

What Goes Into Compost?

Here’s what you can include in your compost:

  1. Kitchen scraps such as vegetable and fruit peelings, dried eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds. If your fruits or veggies went bad before they were eaten, the compost bin is a perfect place for them.
  2. Household items such as shredded newspapers and dryer lint can go into the compost bin, too.
  3. Lawn clippings, leaves, dead plants, bark, wood chips, straw, and/or hay are important ingredients in your compost.
  4. Manure from grass-eating (herbivore) animals, such as chickens, horses, and cows. (This is not necessary; however, if you can find a farmer or someone with horses that will let you haul away some manure, it will be wonderfully beneficial to your plants!)

Do not put these things into your compost:

• Bones, meat, wood ash, pet waste, fat, or dairy.
• Also, stay away from weeds – they might be ready to seed, in which case they could grow into new weeds.

What Do I Do With All of This Stuff?

• Set up a little bin or canister with a lid under your kitchen sink, or right next to it on the counter. Add your kitchen scraps to this until it is full.  Take a second to chop anything big and/or really firm into smaller chunks, about 2-3 inch diameter, before adding it to your container.

• Set up your main compost pile outside.  There are many options for setting up your compost pile, and what you choose depends on where you live, what kind of space you have, and how much you want to spend.  Here’s a quick run-down of the possibilities:

  1. Make a pile directly on the ground, without a container. This works if you live in an area where don’t have to worry about raccoons or neighbors who might be offended.  It’s free, and it’s easy to turn the pile.
  2. Build a compost bin.  You can use old pallets, wood and wire, or wire mesh. This is relatively cheap and easy.  The best size is about 3 x 3 x 3 feet.
  3. Use a trash can and drill holes in the sides and top. This is also pretty cheap and very easy.  It’s a little more difficult to turn the pile this way, though, but it’s possible;  this has been our primary method.
  4. Purchase a composting tumbler. These are pricey but oh, so lovely.  You just put in your composting materials and turn the tumbler from time to time.  Voila: compost.

Add your materials to the compost pile as you accumulate them, and make sure you turn it regularly, so the ingredients will mix together and oxygen will do its work in breaking them down.

Balancing the Contents of Your Compost

It’s important to have a good balance of materials in your compost.  Basically, you have two categories you need to consider:

  1. Greens (Nitrogen)
    • Greens include grass, fruits, veggies, plants, manure, and other kitchen scraps.
  2. Browns (Carbon)
    • Browns include leaves, bark, wood chips, and newspaper.

In general, you want to shoot for one part “green” to three parts “brown.” Brown leaves are usually more abundant in autumn, while green grass clippings are more plentiful in spring and summer.

It may take a little time for you to find the proper balance for your compost pile.  You can ask neighbors to save grass clippings and leaves, and your city may have a facility where large brush is converted into wood chips; get creative about resources!  However, plenty of people are able to make their own compost without needing to go to any of these extra lengths.

In the end, your compost will be ready to use when it is a dark, rich, slightly moist soil-like substance, having no bad odor, but instead smelling like you would imagine the scent of a forest floor.

Give it a try and you will discover that it making your own compost is much easier than it sounds.