One can spend a lot of money on the various products made to help us produce compost – compost tumblers, compost bins , barrels, etc. But the simple truth remains that you can make compost in almost anything to have your own supply of what is considered “black gold” among gardeners.
We use a two bin system at Old World Garden we made for free from recycled pallets – one to hold finished compost, the other to contain our latest batch.
There are major books dedicated to the topic of how to create compost, and we could get into all of the nitrogen vs. oxygen vs. moisture content details and arguments – but today’s post is all about keeping it simple. The important thing is to not get so caught up in it the science that you never get around to starting a pile.
Compost is eventually going to be made in your pile no matter what you do. The act of decomposition works on everything at some point – even that old truck slowly rusting in the weeds will put it’s iron back in the soil eventually!
Here are three basic hints for composting that can carry you far in your efforts to make great compost. By following them, it’s made our little two bin system crank out plentiful amounts of the high quality soil additives – helping bump up our garden yields year after year.
1. Chop Up Items You Add To The Pile The smaller the item going in – the quicker it will decompose. You don’t have to buy expensive shredders or grinders – a simple run over with the lawnmower can shred leaves or straw before you put it in. And when you throw in those kitchen scraps – cut them up a few times on the pile with a sharp shovel to slice them up – they will begin to decompose so much quicker with the exposed smaller pieces
2. Keep your pile moist but not wet. Too wet, and your pile can get slimy. Too dry, and it loses the ability to decompose faster. You should be able to pick up the compost in your soil and feel moisture like that of a damp paper towel or rag. But don’t fear – it won’t ruin your pile if it gets either way – it will just slow down the process. If you get a ton of rain and your pile is out in the open, mix in some dry materials (i.e. chopped straw) to help it out. Maybe even cover it with a tarp to help it not get so wet. On the other hand, if you have a huge dry spell – spray it with a little water when you turn it to get it cooking again.
3. Keep your pile turned. If you turn your pile over every couple of days – it really helps add vital oxygen and air flow to the mix – and distributes the moisture more evenly. All of which result in a compost pile that decomposes quickly. When you see steam rising when you turn it – you will know your pile is really cooking!
Here are some basic things that are great to include in your pile, and a few to avoid:
Great items to compost:
Coffee grounds, peanut shells, banana, orange, grapefruit, potato peels, eggshells, lettuce cores, carrot tops, celery ends, chopped leaves, straw, green grass clippings.
Things we avoid:
Meat and fish products, cooked foods, cooking oils or oily food remnants, diseased or unhealthy plants, weeds or invasive plant material, dog or cat feces.
Although meats and oils can be successfully composted in high temperature piles – for the average weekend gardener – these spell trouble. They bring in unwanted vermin like raccoons, possums, mice, even rats…and they can smell awful. We really try to do a good job just saving and consuming our leftovers so we are not throwing out much anyway – but for us – we just avoid putting these types of things in. Weeds and unhealthy plants are a no-no because if your pile isn’t hot enough, it may not kill the resulting seeds that can germinate in your soil. As for the dog and cat by products – for numerous potential health reasons, it’s best to avoid altogether. However, chicken, rabbit, cow and horse manures are a great source of nitrogen for your pile and can be used if you have available.
So now that you’re making it – how can you use all of this valuable compost that is commonly called “black gold”?
In the early spring – a few weeks prior to planting, we will work a 2 to 3” top dressing of compost into our raised bed rows. Then, at planting time – we will put a cup in the average tomato planting hole, mixing it in with the soil from the hole. We use it one more time to top dress and mulch our garden plants, doing this once the plants have begun to take hold (at the 2 to 4 week stage). A good shovel full or two around the plant’s base will give great weed control and moisture retention. In addition, the compost slowly releases nutrients to the plants when it rains or we water.
I do need to point out here that this is finished compost we are applying – not the hot stuff from a cooking pile. If your compost is still warm and cooking – you DO NOT want to put it near your plants or it can burn them and kill them.
The biggest step in composting is simply to take one and try it! Even if you make mistakes, remember – everything turns to compost eventually 🙂 !
Happy Gardening! Jim and Mary