You can learn how to make compost this year in just a few simple steps. Even though it’s winter now, and the ground may be frozen or covered by snow, it’s never too early to learn how to make compost.
First, though – what is compost?
The simplest definition is that compost is decayed organic matter. It is used as garden fertilizer or soil enhancer. Compost is, however, complex. Complicated. Like a fine wine, it has bouquet, age, body, heft.
Ask any serious gardener about compost and like me, they tend to wax poetic about the glories of “black gold” as some gardeners call their compost. They debate the merits of using manures versus green material, or about adding eggshells versus no eggshells. Creating great compost is both an art and a science, and I’ll share both with you.
How to Make Compost
If compost is decayed organic matter, what do you use for the organic matter? What is organic matter?
Organic matter refers to grass clippings, leaves raked up in the fall, trimmings from hedges or plants, or any other ‘green material’ from the plant kingdom. In nature, such material falls to the earth, where the action of water, worms, microorganisms and weather break down the cell structure and eventually help the plant material decay. After a time, the decayed material crumbles into the earth, where it nourishes the soil. That’s compost at work!
What we do when we make compost is recreate nature’s process in a controlled manner. We pile up the garden materials, add moisture through rain or sometimes the garden hose, and allow the warmth of the sun to encourage the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms that break down the plant material. Worms tunnel through the compost pile, aerating it and nourishing it with their castings (poop), which yes, do go into your compost. Worm castings are terrific for your compost pile, so much so that there are some dedicated gardeners who specialize in vermiculture or vermicompost – keeping worms in a bin just for their poop!
Animal manures may also be added to a compost pile. Be careful and choosy about where that manure comes from. Only manure from herbivores, or animals that eat plants, should be included in your compost pile. That means cow, horse, goat, sheep and rabbit manure is great; never use dog or cat feces. Not only does animal manure contain different elements, it may also contain parasites that can be transmitted to the soil and into humans. Yuck! You’re gardening so that you can grow plants, not tapeworms!
Compost confers many benefits on your garden soil. It adds both macro nutrients and micro nutrients to the soil in a form that plants naturally can use. It adds good texture to bad soils, transforming all soil types into loamy soils that grow great plants.
To start your compost pile, you will need a few things:
An area in your yard or garden for your compost. You can set aside a small area about three feet by three feet. A compost tumbler, which is a barrel on a spinning wheel, is a useful composting tool for gardeners without much room. You can add the compost into the tumbler and both contain it and compost the materials more quickly.
The picture above shows the Yimby Compost Tumbler. Some of the reviews I have read claim that it is easy to assemble and that the compost is ready in about two months. If I had limited space or lived in the suburbs again, I’d use one for sure. (Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: The link above is my Amazon affiliate link; if you purchase after clicking the link, I make a small commission which does not affect your price.)
My Compost Pile
My own compost pile is shown, below. It’s ugly and messy but it does the trick. I used big cement blocks to mark off the area. I have two squares about 3 x 3 marked off. Fresh materials are poured into the left side of the bin several times a week; in the spring and fall, I’ll turn the compost, or dig into the soil and shovel out the ready compost into the right hand square. Then it’s easy to dig it up for use in outdoor containers and in the vegetable garden.
Compost piles shouldn’t smell bad, but sometimes they can develop an odor. You might want to keep your pile away from the neighbor’s house if you like your neighbor.
Mark off the area for your compost pile using bricks, rocks, or wood. It doesn’t have to be fancy. If you use wood, make a frame about 3 feet square and 3-4 feet tall out of cheap wood and staple or nail chicken wire over it. The chicken wire holds the compost in while allowing air and rain water to mix with the compost, which helps break it down more quickly.
Starting Your Compost Pile
Most guides to creating compost talk about carefully layering this and that to your new pile to make it cook or breakdown properly. let’s get real. If you start your compost pile in the spring, you won’t have piles of dead leaves to rake up and pile into the bin. If you start your compost pile in the fall, it’s unlikely you’ll have barrels of grass clippings to add. Am I right?
Start with whatever you have. Just try to have a balanced ration of green stuff to brown stuff. What that means is that if you pile into much fresh cut grass, the compost pile gets smelly and hot as the high nitrogen grass breaks down. If you mix it with brown leaves, the crisp leaves help the ratio rebalance and the pile won’t get smelly.
Now what about kitchen scraps? You’ve probably seen fancy compost buckets with lids sold in catalogs and gardening stores. I have always kept a compost bowl in my kitchens in New York and Long Island. It was literally and old Pyrex bowl set on the counter, and during the day as family members ate apples or oranges, they’d chuck the peels and cores into the bowl. At night when I prepared dinner, I’d peel the carrots, onions, and potatoes into the bowl, so that the peels also landed in the compost pile. The coffee filter and used grounds went into the bowl, as did tea bags. You get the idea.
In my home in Virginia, I have an extra bin next to the trash bin that’s supposed to be for recycled materials. I use it instead as my compost container. The recycled materials are instead saved in cardboard boxes in the garage until we are ready to take them to the recycling center. The compost bin is made of plastic. It is actually an old trash can set into a rolling, hideaway trolley that hides both the bin and the trash can under my kitchen counter behind a door. I can lift up the bin, carry it to the compost pile, dump it, and wash it in the sink for the next use. It’s very economical and I only carry out compost once every two days or so, unless I am doing canning or extensive cooking that builds up the compost more quickly.
What Can You Add to a Compost Pile?
What can you put into your compost pile? I’ve given you general guidelines, above, but here’s a more detailed run down of what your daily household might provide to feed your compost pile:
- Apple cores and peels
- Orange, lemon, grapefruit and other citrus rinds
- Celery trimmings
- Carrot peels
- Turnip peels
- Parsnip peels
- Sweet potato peels
- Potato peels
- Coffee grounds and paper filters
- Shredded paper, such as white “junk” mail (do not shred catalogs or coated paper for the compost pile; the inks aren’t healthy)
- Used tea bags
- Lettuce leaves and other green leafy veggies that have seen better days
- Pineapple stems, cores
- Avocado peels
- Mango peels
- Onion and garlic skins
Basically, all fruit and vegetable peels are okay to add to the compost pile.
Some things I add that not all gardeners agree should be added:
- Eggshells – when I use an egg for cooking, I rinse the shell and smash it up into the compost pile. It adds calcium.
- Nut shells – we like to eat raw nuts in the shell in my household and usually have a bowl of nuts out on the table for snacking. I add the peanut, almond, pecan, hazelnut and Brazil nut shells to the compost pile. Avoid walnut shells; they can be toxic to plants. I smash them up into small bits. I don’t know if they break down very well, but I think they add organic drainage to the soil.
For manures, I try to make a trip to a nearby farm once every few years for cow or horse manure. I wish I could go more frequently but most of the farmers I know are also avid gardeners and they don’t give up the manure so easily! It really is fantastic for your compost piles.
Some people have asked me about straw or hay bales…if you are going to add them to your compost pile, just do one thing. Make sure they are weed-free or seed free. Straw usually is, but hay can have a lot of seeds left in it, and those seeds will simply seed your vegetable and flower beds with weeds.
Speaking of weeds, I avoid putting any weeds into my compost bin just for that reason. Some gardeners add weeds and spent garden plants, such as annuals or vegetables in the fall, but I do not. I have a lot of trouble with fungal diseases in my garden and feel that adding such plants to the compost pile will only spread the diseases further. Instead, I simply discard those plants into the woods on my farm. Homeowners in urban or suburban areas can bag and trash them with the household trash.
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So there you have it…my simple guide to how to make compost. I’d love to hear your composting questions, so share any questions in the comment area and I’ll try to answer them.