A home compost pile recycles waste into a natural fertilizer and soil conditioner. Compost improves water-holding properties in sandy soil and improves texture in clay type soils. Turn a couple of inches of compost into the top six inches of your annual garden beds in spring to add vital nutrients to depleted soils. Top-dress your perennial gardens, potted plants, shrubs and trees. Composting reduces your household waste (carbon footprint) while reusing and recycling nature’s nutrients.
An ideal compost mix consists of one-part "greens" and three-parts "browns". More browns do not cause a problem and simply break down slower, but too many greens create a slimy, stinky mess. A compost pile should never smell; add shredded paper to quickly correct the imbalance if you notice an odor.
Green materials include fresh grass clippings, manure and bedding from animals that do not eat meat (horse, cow, chicken, rabbit), garden refuse, weeds (without seeds), lake weeds and kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, tea bags and egg shells. It is ok add old or moldy food in your compost pile along and your shriveled Halloween pumpkin.
Browns include non-glossy shredded paper, non-oily paper napkins and paper towels, cotton dryer lint, straw, leaves, dried grass and finely chopped corn stocks.
Do not put manure from animals that eat meats (cats, dogs, humans), meat products, fish, bones, oils, nut-butters or dairy products into your compost. These attract carnivorous wildlife, smell bad and can transfer disease. Avoid grass clippings from chemically treated lawns, weeds such as creeping charlie, dandelion seeds or woody plant material like hedge trimmings. Nutshells, corncobs, pine needles and pinecones do not compost well. Sod and sawdust slow aeration and inhibit the process. Ashes change the ph balance and cause a nutrient imbalance. Diseased plants, rhubarb leaves, tomato plants and walnut leaves can transfer toxins into your compost and should be disposed of elsewhere.
There are many ways to create compost, but all require air, water, natural bacteria and time. For individuals or apartment dwellers, a commercial bin or barrel unit may be your best choice. Homeowners with a yard and garden benefit from a multi-staged bin or heap. Other methods for making compost including burying materials in a trench or tilling shredded material directly into the soil, methods commonly used in agricultural settings. Avoid the types of commercial bins that roll on the ground if you have back problems or limited strength as they are very hard to push when filled.
Homemade bins are the least expensive and can be made from pallets, cement blocks, wire fencing, hardware cloth or constructed from weather resistant treated lumber. Ideally, bins should be at least three feet by three feet and three feet tall.
Turning is not necessary for the cold pile method. Layer the browns and greens in the pile and in about one year you will have mature compost. Water occasionally if there is little rainfall. This method is most useful if you have multiple piles or bins. For the hot pile method, layer the materials and turn the pile once a week or so with a potato fork. This mixes the microorganisms that break down the plant materials, aerates the pile and speeds the process by several months. Commercial “starters” are not necessary; nature will provide all the enzymes and bacteria needed to rot and break down the materials within in a few weeks.
Your compost is mature when you do not recognize individual materials and it looks like dirt. It will have a light and crumbly texture. If most of the compost is ready but there are a few recognizable objects like banana peels or avocado skins, simply remove and return them to the composting process. Use your finished compost liberally in your garden and reap the natural soil conditioning benefits while recycling your yard and kitchen waste.
Learn about the history of composting here.
Plans for a wood compost box.
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