6 Steps to Perfect Compost
Left with an abundance of yard/garden waste and food scraps? Environmentally minded? In need of some free fertilizer for your lawn, garden or houseplants? Then it’s time to get decaying… or rather composting.
It’s the perfect time to learn — in fact, May 29th is “Learn How to Compost Day.”
Compost is a gardener’s best friend. As you build your own compost pile, bin, or tumbler, you’ll learn to love this nutrient-rich pile of possibility. The “dirt” and humus that are created from your scraps do more than just reduce unnecessary additions to the landfill. They are also essential to revitalizing your garden and providing your household and garden plants with the nutrients they need to thrive.
Thankfully, building your own basic compost pile is simple to do. All you need is green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) material from your yard waste and household food scraps, and a good place to put it. I’ll cover the different methods of composting in a later post but for now, no matter what techniques you use, it’s hard to misstep. The speed with which your compost breaks down, the efficiency of maintaining your compost pile (to keep the smell and bugs down), and the potency of the nutrient-rich humus your compost creates is a slightly different story. Thus, all of the techniques and tips contained in this article will speed up the process, preserve the nutrients in the compost and help keep it smelling like a bed full of, well… good earth.
1. Balanced and Bountiful
If you heaped all your table scraps and yard waste in one big pile and let it sit for long enough, you would eventually have some good soil/humus to work with and use in your garden/plants/lawn treatment.
If you want to have GREAT soil/humus, and cut down on smell and compost time then you might need to do a little math: 30:1 Carbon to Nitrogen. Too much green (nitrogen) and your compost will become green, slimy and probably smelly. Too much brown (carbon) and you’re going to get just that, a pile of brown twigs and plant stalks that take forever to break down. You don’t need to measure how much of each type you’re putting in your pile, but if you simply eye ball it, you can add more of one or the other when you feel like your compost is out of balance.
What you can put in your compost pile:
• Dry leaves
• Hay & straw
• Dried grass
• Cornstalks and cobs other plant stems (Chopped finely or shredded)
• Sawdust (See caution section below)*
• Bits of wood and pruning
• Wood Ash (Completely cooled)
• Tea bags
• Peat Moss
• Coffee filters
• Pine needles (In small quantities, as they are very acidic)
• Fresh (green) grass clippings
• Flowers and cuttings
• Fresh manure from rescued herbivorous animals (horses, rabbits, cows)
• Weeds (without seeds and chopped if needed to prevent re-growth)
• Green plant cuttings
• Leftover fruits and veggies from the garden
• Vegetable & fruit peelings
• Coffee grounds
• Young hedge trimmings
• Seaweed and kelp
Ingredients to avoid:
-Animal products: Cheese, meat, eggs etc. Animal products can attract other animals, smell unpleasantly and introduce disease and unwanted bacteria into your compost pile.
-Weeds that easily spread: If you’re having a hard time keeping certain weeds out of your garden, it’s probably best not to put them in the compost. The heat of a good compost pile can kill some weeds, but be careful which ones you choose to put in the pile.
-Diseased plants: If you didn’t want it in your garden, than you don’t want to add it to the compost, which will eventually be used in the garden.
-Shredded paper scraps: Unless you know that they are free from harmful chemicals, it’s best not to put paper in the compost due to the inks and other chemicals they contain. Recycling is a safer way to go.
-Dog or cat poop: It’s smelly, and you run the risk of adding diseases or unwanted bacteria to your compost.
*Sawdust/Wood Shaving, chips and bark – It’s fine to add some wood chips and sawdust to your compost, although these items do take longer to break down, so add these items sparingly. Wood has a high carbon content so it takes a long time to break down and can overwhelm a compost pile. Sawdust or small chips are best Layer it lightly over fresh compost scraps to cut down on smells and dissuade flying critters. Sawdust and wood chips can also be helpful when your pile is overwhelmed with green material, but it should be used in moderation. Never use black walnut sawdust, which retards or destroys plant growth.
2. Size Matters
If you’re throwing half a watermelon rind or large twigs and branches into the compost pile, you’re going to be waiting a long time before you can use your new soil. If you can afford to purchase a shredder for woody items it will help solve these carbon-based woes, but if not, simply chopping up the larger pieces before adding them to the pile will help. Pruning shears work well on harder items. Nitrogen-rich materials such as vegetable waste and green pruning(s) can also be shredded, but it is less important than with carbon-rich material. The more you shred or chop the larger/harder items going into your compost, the easier it will be for the beneficial microbes in your compost to break them down and keep moisture even throughout the pile.
3. A Breath of Fresh Air
If you want your compost to break down quickly then it needs to breathe. This is because many of the good bacteria that help break down your household/yard waste need air to survive. You can usually tell that the oxygen level has dropped in your compost pile when the temperature of the pile drops (the core heat emanating from it should be between 120-160 degrees F.) This usually starts to happen around every two weeks, which makes every two weeks a good time to flip the compost. Even if you don’t have time to do a full flip, prodding the compost pile with a garden fork, stick, or metal rod will go a long way towards aerating the pile and speeding up the process.
When you turn the compost pile, pull material from the outer edges into the middle of the heap and break up any large clumps that may have formed. If any part of the pile is dry, moisten it as you go, but be careful of over-watering (covered in the next tip.)
There are also ways to create “No-Turn” piles such as building a tumbler or simply building your compost pile to circulate air (although I recommend flipping if you’re using a good amount of green material.)
Building a pile that breathes on its own:
The secret is to mix in enough coarse material, like straw, when building the compost pile. The compost will develop as fast as if you were flipping it regularly. Lay straw/hay or twigs first, at least a few inches deep. This allows for drainage and helps aerate the pile (just like flipping). Add compost materials in layers, alternating moist and dry, and ta-da! you’ve got a no-turn pile.
4. Moisture [More or Less a Question of Content]
Keeping your compost pile moist is one of the keys to keeping it active and decomposing at a good speed. On average, you want about 50-60% moisture content. What does that mean? You can eye ball it, but if you’re not afraid of a little dirt, grab a handful of compost (from the middle of the pile – the bits that are well on their way to dirt) and squeeze it.
- No water comes out and it crumbles apart when you open your hand: The compost is too dry.
- Water comes out: The compost is too wet.
- No water comes out, but the compost stays compact: Perfect!
Basically, you want your compost lightly moistened, but water shouldn’t be running off it and it shouldn’t be dry enough to notice. If you’re in a dry area you may need to spray a bit of water on the pile from time to time. If you’re in a rainy area, covering the top of the pile with a tarp or other sort of covering will protect it from getting too soggy.
5. Power in Numbers
If you only have space for one pile, then one is better then none, but if you have the space to create two or three smaller piles, go for it. Every time you add new material to your compost pile you’re setting your “ready” date back. Starting a new pile once you have enough material to create a good source of heat and compost (approximately 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet) allows you to move forward faster. The longer your compost takes to break down, the more nutrients that will be lost into the soil below the pile.
6. Compost Activators: Do You Need Them?
While some garden stores may try to sell you “compost activators,” most likely you’ve got all the good microbes and fungi you need clinging to your garden/yard waste already. If your compost doesn’t have the ‘oomph’ you’d like it to, you can spray EM-1 solution on your pile, or add alfalfa meal and/or comfrey leaves to the pile to super-charge the contents.
Comfrey leaves are probably your cheapest and easiest, simplest bet. All you need is a bit of spare ground, or better yet, a garden bed you’re not using. Comfrey’s deep roots absorb nutrients from below the topsoil (subsoil), which is then transferred to and stored in the leaves. As this plant grows, the leaves and the soil they are grown in become nitrogen-rich, which is part of the reason growing this plant right in your garden can be a great idea.
It’s super easy to grow, and once the leaves are big enough you can use them for a covering for your compost or to make a beautiful compost tea (the leaves can irritate the skin so wear gloves when you’re picking them.
When your compost is ready, you should be able to see the difference between the dark, earthy, sweet soil it has become and the depleted soil from your garden. You’ll learn to love this beautiful humus, teeming with life and potential, and treasure it for the rich earth it has become. Whether you choose to use your compost to build the soil in your garden, fertilize new or existing pants, top dress your lawn, make a compost tea, lay it around trees and shrubs, on house plants or to create your own potting mix, I’m sure you’ll have a hard time ever throwing an apple peel or fall leaves in the garbage again!
80+ Items You Can Compost