Compost 101: Don’t Start a Garden Without It!
No garden would be complete without its own natural recycling system, a compost pile. Without a way of dealing with compost, weeds and scraps are waste. But why create more trash when you can turn your garden and kitchen waste into valuable soil-building fertilizer?
One of the first steps to starting an organic garden should be to begin a compost pile. Composting will break down organic matter into nutrient-rich material that builds soil and nourishes plants. And just like anyone can garden, no matter their situation, there are composting possibilities for everyone! Read on to learn how to close the loop and start composting…
Possible Composting Methods
- A big outdoor compost heap or bin. If you have the space in your garden or yard, a large compost heap is the best way to make the most of all your organic matter waste and fertilize a large garden. Your compost pile can be as simple as a loose heap in a sheltered area of the yard, or as fancy as a pre-made tumbling bin. For my garden, I created a simple 3-sided structure (pictured above) along the fence using free shipping pallets held up by rebar posts that were pounded into the ground. A compost pile should be at least 3′ x 3′ x 3′ to break down the organic matter well. It’s best to allow it to breathe, and you’ll need to be able to easily access it to stir your compost every so often to keep it going. You can find bin construction instructions and ideas here.
- A worm bin for vermicomposting. The idea of keeping a bin of worms to eat garbage freaked me out at first, but now that I’ve harvested a few rounds of rich worm castings and seen the results, I’m a big believer in worm power. You can build your own worm bin or buy a ready-made stacking bin (I’ve had great results with the Can o’ Worms). Worm composting can be scaled to your available space, so it’s great for keeping in a garage, deck, or even in the kitchen. I use both a worm bin and a garden compost pile because my worm bin can only digest so much, so I only give the worms kitchen scraps. Some worms often don’t like things like onions, citrus, and hot peppers, so those can go in the compost pile.
- Small-scale container composting. Bokashi, or bucket composting, is a high-speed and scalable composting method developed in Japan. This is ideal for apartment-dwellers or for generating compost quickly. It uses special microbes to speed up the composting process.
- Collective composting. Some municipalities will collect yard waste for composting much like they collect recycling and trash. This is an option if you have no room to compost or no use for compost. Alternatively, you could organize a collective compost pile for your apartment complex, neighborhood, or community garden.
Once you have chosen the best composting method for your needs and lifestyle, you can learn how to build a composting set-up and start turning your veggie scraps and weeds into valuable garden fertilizer. But before you start, here are a few tips and reminders…
- Layer your pile. If you’re building a large compost pile, you’ll want to layer it with alternating layers of “green” and “brown” organic matter. It helps to throw some soil, manure, or completed compost on top to get the microbes working. I like to put woodier things like dead plant stalks on the bottom and layer veggie scraps, weeds, and dead leaves on top. The amounts of the various types of organic matter will determine how long your compost takes to decompose.
- Know what to compost and what not to. Before you throw just any organic matter into your bin, make sure you research what your bin can handle. For instance, worms don’t seem to like citrus (too acidic) or anything too spicy, but they love coffee grounds. Keep meat and dairy products out of compost piles, as they can go rancid and also attract critters, though eggshells are ok. And large pieces of wood or sticks may take a long time to break down, so they’re best left out of the compost bin.
- Let it breathe. For most compost bins, the organic matter needs a way to get oxygen so that it can break down (the exception to this is a Bokashi system, since it uses unique microbes that don’t need oxygen). Worm bins usually have ventilation holes, and allowing some air to get into your compost bin or container helps for this. My compost container is only 3-sided and air can get in through the slats in the pallets that are used for walls.
- Keep it moist. Compost needs moisture to aid in decomposition. I water my compost pile a little bit every time I water the garden. It doesn’t like to be soaked though, so in the rainy season you may want to put a tarp over the pile or bin.
- Turn it occasionally. How often you turn your compost pile depends on how fast everything is breaking down. Normally the center of a compost pile will be warm. Once the heat starts dying down, you can stir or turn it with a garden fork to get the decomposition going again. Stirring your pile every few weeks can help it decompose faster.
- Multiple piles for a constant supply. If you keep adding kitchen scraps to a compost pile, each addition will be at varying stages of decay. This can make it difficult to know when to harvest finished compost. It may help to start a big pile in the spring, then let it sit (stirring occasionally) and start a new one to add new waste to. This way you always have compost in the works. With vermicomposting, you can keep adding and harvest a layer of the bin, moving the worms to a new layer. With container composting, usually the turn-around time for compost is pretty quick, but multiple containers can’t hurt.
Compost is an artform that’s best learned through practice. Everyone has different methods, which you’ll learn as you experiment. Composting is simple, inexpensive, and very eco-friendly. It’s recycling you can do right at home! You may be amazed at how little ends up in the trash can once you start composting, and instead of filling the landfill, you can turn waste into delicious home-grown produce!
I’ll share more on how to start a garden in upcoming articles, so stay tuned and find out how my garden grows.
Photo: creating my haphazard, inexpensive compost bin. It is kept inside the garden for easy access and to keep critters out of it.