As we go through the season — pulling weeds and deadheading, cutting back in the fall — we end up with a lot of garden “waste.” Rather than tossing everything into lawn bags at the curb, consider this “trash” future garden “treasure” in the form of compost! After all, many farmers and gardeners think of good compost as “black gold.” As our plants grow, they draw nutrients up from the soil, so one of the best things we can do is try to replace them.
What is compost, though? After following lots of social media accounts from across the pond, I’ve learned that “compost” means something different to those of us here in North America than it does in Europe. In England, I’ve heard the term “compost” used where we might say “potting soil” or “seed starting mix.” Here, we usually think of compost as broken down organic matter (plants, autumn leaves, manure) that is rich in nutrients and used as a fertilizer or soil conditioner.
The Right Ingredients
Such a valuable resource is pretty easy to create. The magic ingredients include browns, greens, moisture, air, and a little heat. Microbes and organisms (like worms and beetles) will find their way into your pile and help the process along, too.
“Browns” – These add carbon, are typically dry, and can include:
- Dried leaves and dried out grass clippings
- Shredded paper and cardboard, or torn egg cartons (no glossy paper)
- Straw, not hay. Hay is used for feed and can include seeds, where straw is just stems whose hollow structure can help promote air circulation through the pile.
“Greens” – These add nitrogen, are typically “wet”, and can include:
- Fresh vegetation clippings
- Fresh leaves
- Lawn cuttings
- Kitchen waste (fruits, veggies, coffee grounds, tea leaves)
Moisture – Your greens may add a lot of moisture and rain may keep it damp enough, but during hotter, drier summer months, you may need to sprinkle your pile with a hose from time to time.
Air – Air is needed to keep the microorganisms that break everything down alive, and keeping a pile aerated helps prevent odors.
Materials to avoid
- Woody stems. You want to make sure anything you add will break down quickly. Chop or shred these if you want to include them (think mulch size pieces). Hard or tough items, like peach pits and avocado skins, are also less likely to decompose.
- Diseased materials, as the diseases can linger and transfer back to your garden.
- Weeds. Just leaves can be okay, but avoid roots and flowers or material that has gone to seed and could germinate or spread.
- Animal products – meat/protein products, dairy products, pet waste, grease, or oils – as these tend to attract pests and rodents.
- Anything that has been treated with an herbicide – chemicals can linger and affect your garden growth.
Building the Pile
Getting a good ratio is key to successful composting. Alternate brown and green layers, but start with brown on the bottom. While twigs and woody stems may not break down quickly, putting some on the bottom can help air get into your pile. More greens will create a hotter pile that will break down faster. Heat can also kill diseases and weed seeds. However, too much green may cause the pile to “burn out” too quickly. On the other hand, too much brown can lead the pile to be too “cold” and dry. Add a few shovels of garden soil once in a while (try a sprinkle between layers) to add in the microbes that will break down the materials.
As you build your pile, you might wonder how big it should be. The recommended size is about 3-4’ high, wide, and deep. This is also a fairly manageable size for mixing things around.
A constructed compost bin is not necessary, but can help keep things tidier in a small or visible space. If you have ample space, consider setting up multiple chambers or piles. Two or three is helpful, as you can start new materials in one section, turn over onto the second section, and continue this pattern if you have a third section for “finished” compost. The Farmer’s Almanac even has a video on how to build a bin from pallets. Building a “real” compost area is on my to-do list for next season!
Turn it! Turning is not necessary, as everything will break down eventually, but doing it will help speed up the decomposition process and ensure there is air in the pile. Aim for a turn every few weeks to a month, or turn more often for faster composting. You can also fluff your pile from time to time with a pitchfork to ensure that air mixes in well.
Vary the greens – the more diversity you can include, the wider the range of nutrients that will be in your compost.
Chop things up. The smaller you can make the pieces you add to your pile, the faster they can break down. Run garden debris over with a mower or chop up veggie bits before adding them in the bin. If you have a shredder, you could easily add things like newspaper. If adding eggshells, be sure to crush them, or you might find a seed sprouting in half a shell when you turn your pile (spoken from experience)!
If adding leaves, shred them if you can, and mix them in. A thick layer of leaves can form a mat that blocks circulation.
Learn more about composting methods from Farmer’s Almanac, here: https://www.almanac.com/how-compost-hot-and-cold-methods