Mary-Mary-Quite-Contrary might have used silver bells and cockleshells to make her garden grow, but most gardeners need compost for the best results. A properly composted garden provides more fertile soil, a balanced source of nutrients, and beneficial microorganisms that can be easily absorbed by plants. The result is a more bountiful garden that is not only good for the earth, but also provides better and healthier produce, reduces the need for fertilizers, and lowers methane emissions from landfills because you’re using material that might otherwise be thrown away.
If you’ve never taken the time to build a compost pile for your garden, now is a great time to get started. It’s a fairly simple process once you familiarize yourself with the basics, and it only takes a couple of weeks to build a decent compost pile. A good first step is to understand the four basic ingredients that make for a healthy garden. Here’s a quick primer:
- Carbon. Carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves, wood chips, straw, shredded paper, shrub prunings, and cornstalks provide energy food for microorganisms. Materials high in carbon tend to be dry, tough or fibrous, and tan or brown in color.
- Nitrogen. Materials with high nitrogen content provide components that are rich in protein, which allows microorganisms to grow and multiply. To enrich your garden with more nitrogen, use fresh weeds and grass clippings, leafy table scraps, seaweed, and over-ripe fruits and vegetables. If you don’t mind animal byproducts, you can also use blood or bone meal.
- Water. You probably already knew that moisture is a key ingredient in any successful garden. That’s true for the composting pile as well. Just be careful to use the right amount – too little water will dehydrate microorganisms, and too much will drown them. For the best results, keep your compost pile about as moist as a well-wrung sponge. One way to ensure the right moisture level is to enclose the compost pile with a container or cover it with a tarp.
- Oxygen. Microorganisms require oxygen to do their jobs properly, so it’s important to ensure that enough air gets into the various layers of your compost pile. To ensure consistent airflow as you add new material to the compost, you’ll need to turn or aerate it regularly.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues recommendations on what types of materials should be used in composting and what shouldn’t. Stay away from materials that can harm plants and microorganisms and attract rodents, or that contains bacteria and other harmful substances. Here’s a rundown:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Nut shells
- Shredded newspaper
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Hay and straw
- Wood chips
- Cotton and wool rags
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ashes
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Dairy products such as butter, milk, sour cream and yogurt
- Diseased or insect-ridden plants
- Fats, grease, lard, and oils
- Meat or fish bones and scraps
- Pet feces or soiled cat litter
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
There are a couple of ways you can compost at home: in your yard or indoors. For outdoor composting, tools that come in handy include pitchforks, square-point shovels, and hoses with a spray head.
For indoor composting, you’ll need to find a bin that’s large enough to hold all of the material and also provides enough room to turn it when needed. You can usually find composting bins at gardening supply stores, hardware stores, and home improvement chains like Lowe’s and The Home Depot. If you’re handy with tools, you can even make your own bin. Just make sure to use the right materials in your bin and tend the compost pile regularly to ward off pests and rodents.
Here are the steps to follow for a successful compost pile:
How to Compost
1. Find a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile.
2. Collect green and brown materials and add them to the pile, making sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
3. Moisten dry materials when you add them.
4. Mix grass and other green material into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable material at least 10 inches below the compost material.
5. Add water as needed. One good technique is to insert the hose into the middle of the pile in several places or sprinkle the pile when you turn it.
6. Turn or aerate the pile regularly to ensure enough oxygen gets in.