Composting Made Easy: 6 Tips to Making Good Compost

Compost pile

Whether you make it at home or purchase it from a reliable source, compost is the key to a fertile soil, and good soil is the key to healthy fruits and vegetables. Compost or what I call Black Gold improves soil structure and aeration, increases its water holding capacity and adds beneficial microorganisms. These microbes break down organic matter and convert nutrients into a more available form for plants. Finally, compost infuses the soil with natural antibiotics.

You can use old compost as an inoculator just as you would do with sourdough bread or yogurt. No need to buy those expensive compost starters. Go over to the compost pile you started last fall or spring. The compost that was piled so high has now shrunken down. The organic material on the top hasn’t broken down too much, but the stuff halfway down and on the bottom is ready to place on your garden. Spread it generously on your fall garden and dig it in lightly. Save some of the older compost that sits at the bottom of the pile. Mix it with peat, vermiculite and/or perlite for potting and germinating mixes in the early spring.

Did you know the average American throws away almost four pounds of garbage every day? A third is kitchen waste that could be used in a compost heap. In other words, most people could have bins of compost cooking in their backyards. And when you can add in leaves, old mulch, animal manure, strips of newspapers, fresh green lawn clippings, weeds, your neighbor’s vegetable wastes, wood ashes from the wood stove and more, there’s a lot of potential for compost to heal the earth.

How to make compost

A compost pile can be started any season of the year. The basics are easy: collect the organic matter, pile it up and let it rot. All you need to do is to keep the microorganisms in the pile well supplied with the proper proportions of food, air and water and follow some simple rules described below:

Compost makes good sense – according to many gardeners, composting is easy when you use your sense of sight, smell, touch, and taste.

Use your eyes – well-ripened compost is a black-brown crumbly material, colored somewhere between chocolate and spice cake.

Use your nose – smell when the sweet compost has completed its cycle.

Use your hands – feel the wetness or dryness inside the pile. It should feel like a wet sponge that doesn’t quite drip. If the heap is too hot, you can tell because your hand will burn. In this case, open up the pile and add some hay. It’s good to turn the pile at least once. If you can’t turn it, that’s OK but turning it too much is a waste of time and effort and it upsets the natural process of decomposition.

Use your mouth – Once I had a friend who liked the taste of well-ripened compost. Hmm! He said it was sweet to the palate and he used taste to tell him when it was time to spread it on the garden. Each to his own.

6 tips to making good compost

If the pile is too dry, water it.

If there are too many leaves or old hay (i.e., too much carbon), it will breakdown very slowly. Replenish it with nitrogen in the form of fresh green grass, weeds, kitchen scraps and animal manures.

If the pile gets too hot from too much nitrogen, cool it down by opening it up and adding some carbon materials like hay and leaves. You’ll smell ammonia (nitrogen gas) in the case where too much fresh animal manure is present. Have you ever been overcome by the odor of chicken manure? What you’re smelling is the ammonia (nitrogen gas).

If the pile is too soggy, there isn’t enough oxygen; aerate the pile and add some dry materials.

Add lime or wood ashes if the heap begins to smell like garbage. Don’t throw in meat scraps unless you want skunks in your backyard and the sound of screaming neighbors.

The key to successful composting is to have enough air and water, the right ingredients and the correct carbon (straw, hay) to nitrogen (fresh grass clippings, animal manure) ratio. Fresh manure mixed with hay bedding from a barn is the ideal combination. This translates to about 12 parts carbon and one part nitrogen or a 12 to 1 ration. Most home gardeners use whatever materials are available.

Ron Krupp is an organic gardener from Vermont and the author of The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening. Visit his website at www.woodchuckgardeningvt.com.
image: Joi (Creative Commons BY)
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