If there is one thing that can make a huge impact to the short and long-term success of your garden – it’s compost!
Working in generous amounts of compost to your garden soil each season keeps it teeming with the nutrients and organisms that eliminate the need for using synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. (see: 5 Ways to Use Compost Effectively in the Garden!).
Fertilizers not only cost a fortune, but over time – can deplete your soil’s structure and affect other nutrients in the soil – requiring, you guessed it – the need for yet more chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. It’s a vicious cycle that can be completely eliminated by replenishing your soil with nutrient-rich compost each year – and when combined with other simple organic practices such an annual cover crop – your garden will flourish! ( see : All About Cover Crops)
Sadly – many who think about making their own compost get discouraged with the overload of technical information about the right way or the wrong way to compost.
Which leads us to the entire point of today’s article – it really doesn’t have to be a complicated process! For all that is written about obtaining the exact ratios of carbon materials to nitrogen sources – or perfect moisture levels in your pile – just remember that decomposition is a natural process. And with or without human intervention to provide “the perfect” environment – all things in nature will eventually decompose – including your backyard compost pile!
The important thing is to not get so caught up in the confusion that you never get around to starting that pile – and knowing that by following a few simple rules of thumb – you can make great compost in a few months or less to power your garden.
So let’s get started with those 5 tips!
1. Start With The Right Mix Of Materials
To get the most out of your compost pile – it’s important to remember that it takes a good balance of Brown (Carbon) and Green (Nitrogen) materials. Think of the Browns as the more lifeless of the two – they consist of leaves, straw, wood shavings, dead grass, small twigs and limbs. The Green’s can be thought of as the fresh portion – such as kitchen scraps like vegetable peels and coffee grounds, green grass clippings, plant or garden clippings – or animal by-products like chicken and rabbit manures.
All of the experts will tell you the perfect ratio is somewhere between 25 to 30 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen – derived from all sorts of complicated equations based on the dry weights of each material – and you can quickly lose your mind if you try to follow it to the letter of the law.
A great rule of thumb that many have used with great success for years (including us) is that for every 3 to 4 parts of brown material you put in – make sure to add 1 part of green.
As an example – we add a five gallon bucket of coffee grounds and vegetable scraps from our kitchen every few weeks, at which time we add about 3 to 4 buckets of shredded leaves, straw, or other fibrous materials. When we add in our chicken manure from the coop clean out – we make sure to add about 3 to 4 times as much dry material as well. Again – don’t get so caught up in trying to be exact – just try to stick to making sure your pile doesn’t receive too many green or browns without some balance – and you will be amazed at the results. (see: 8 Great Tips For Finding FREE Compost Materials)
2. Make Your Pile Big Enough To Work – But Not Too Big to Manage.
This is a big one! If you have too small of a pile, your materials will never “heat up” enough to decompose quickly. If your pile is too big – it becomes difficult to turn and mix – and that can slow things down as well.
So what is the best size? For best results, you will want a minimum pile of 3′ x 3′ x 3′ and a maximum of 5′ x 5′ x 5′.
You can use almost anything to hold in the pile – old wooden stakes to for a bin – staked chicken wire or fencing – or even blocks or brick. I personally like the wood slats or fencing – mainly because it allows air to circulate through the pile easier. (see: How To Make Your Own Double Compost Bins From Pallets)
3. Chop Up Items You Add To The Pile
Another big one for quick compost! As a rule – the smaller the item going in – the quicker it will decompose. There is no need to buy expensive shredders or grinders – a simple run-over with the lawnmower can shred leaves or straw. The same goes for those kitchen scraps – a few more chops with your knife before throwing them in the pile will let them break down more quickly and help speed up the process.
So instead of starting your pile with loads of whole leaves, twigs and sticks – break them up a bit to get a great pile going!
4. Turn, Turn, And Turn Some More…
Just like us – the organisms that help to break down your compost pile need oxygen. By turning the pile more frequently (with a spade or pitchfork every few days), you keep it alive and cooking.
In addition – you are incorporating those brown and green materials more thoroughly – and that speeds up decomposition as well. Once every day or two is optimum to keep a pile at peak ability – but even getting to your pile for a turn once every week will produce much faster compost than a stagnant pile.
No need to get crazy while turning – just a few flips and turns to put the outer material to the inside will keep it working.
5. Keep The Pile Moist…
Moisture is the other big key to a great compost pile. If there is not enough – the center will begin to cool and it will slow decomposition to a crawl. If there is too much – it will become saturated and cool it down as well. So how much is enough? A good rule to follow is that a pile should have the consistency and moisture of a well-wrung sponge – damp, but not dripping.
Each time you turn the pile keep an eye on the moisture level. If you notice it beginning to dry out – add a little water to bring the moisture content up. If you have trouble regulating the moisture – try covering it with a sheet, a canvas tarp, or a large piece of plastic. It will help keep moisture in during hot days and prevent it from becoming drenched during heavy downpours.
Here’s the best tip of all – get a pile started and try making your own compost! Even it’s not a perfect ratio, or the perfect moisture level, or if life gets in the way and you don’t get it turned for a few weeks – remember – everything turns to compost eventually – and your garden and vegetable plants will love you for it!
Happy Gardening and Composting! Jim and Mary