Composting can be a highly beneficial step in maintaining a healthy garden. It improves the soil, and gradually releases the nutrients that plants need. Furthermore, it’s good for the environment. It’s a form of recycling that makes use of what otherwise would be disposed of as garbage.
But what is compost?
Compost is nothing more than decomposed organic material, both plant and animal. In the context of gardening, we’re talking about something intentionally gathered and turned into compost, but really nature creates compost all the time. It’s just the dead plants and animals that gather on the ground, to be eaten by scavengers, insects, worms, and microorganisms.
When we create compost for a garden, we purposely mix together the combination of decomposed organic material that happens to be most beneficial for what we are trying to grow.
In order to make compost, to start with you’ll need a large container, located convenient to your garden to collect the material that will turn to compost. A closed container can be a little more inconvenient in that you’ll have to add water periodically rather than just letting the rain take care of that, but it’s probably the best way to go in that an open container is apt to draw bugs and rodents.
It’s good to have more than one container, or a container with more than one compartment, as once you’ve gotten a container filled to the desired level, you want to leave it be to turn into compost and not be constantly adding new material. The new material instead should be used to start a new batch.
OK, but more specifically, how do you make compost? What organic material should you be putting in your compost container?
Compost is generally divided into two main categories; you’ll want a balance of the two. One type is called “green” and one is called “brown.” Don’t be misled by those terms though; the material itself isn’t always of those colors.
Green means organic material that is high in nitrogen; brown means organic material that is high in carbon. Having the right mix is key to composting. The microorganisms that break this organic material down into compost need the protein of the nitrogen and the energy of the carbon.
Green material includes grass clippings, weeds, green leaves, discarded fruits and vegetables, most other kitchen scraps that you would otherwise send down the disposal, and cow or horse manure (don’t use dog or cat manure). Meat, fat, fish, etc. can be used as compost if fully buried, but only in small quantities, and really you’re better off skipping these scraps entirely, as they’re even more likely than the other ingredients to draw vermin.
Brown material includes brown dried leaves, dried grass, shredded cornstalks, straw, sawdust, bark, and wood ashes.
The compost should be kept lightly moist, but should not sit in standing water. It should be mixed up regularly with a pitch fork or similar tool. If you can shred the material into smaller pieces, that’s better than having big chunks.
Most beginning gardeners end up with a mixture that has too much green. They get into the habit of dumping their food scraps and grass clippings and such in their compost container, but with too little brown to balance it out. In fact, you should aim for at least four times the volume of brown as green. Too much green means you get a rotting garbage dump rather than compost. You almost always can use some more brown in your compost.
On the other hand, certain kinds of brown can put things out of balance in the other direction. Dried leaves and grass and such are fine, but wood products like sawdust, wood chips, bark, wood ash, etc., are so high in carbon that you want to use these materials only sparingly.
You can add worms or commercially available “compost activators,” but really nature will provide all the necessary organisms for the compost process. If you add a shovelful or two of garden soil, you’ll have plenty of the worms and microorganisms and such for successful composting.
Within a few weeks, your compost should be fully broken down and ready to spread on your garden. Till it into your soil to improve the soil and provide nutrients for your plants.
“The Basics of Composting.” The Garden of Oz.
“Composting Instructions: How to Compost at Home: A Guide to Making Your Own Compost.” Compost Instructions.
“How to Compost.” wikiHow.