Gardening 101: Compost Doesn't Happen

BlogHer Original Post

This past week, armed only with a garden fork, I worked for an hour at making my own soil, mixing together kitchen scraps, shredded papers, and the remains collected in our vacuum. 

One of the most important elements to add to any garden soil is fresh compost.  The sweet crumbly brown matter helps to aerate the soil, improve its texture, helps to retain moisture, and add valuable nutrients.  While composted material is usually inexpensive to find at a garden center, it's also one of the easiest garden items to make for yourself.  And, as more and more municipalities are limiting yard waste additions to the waste stream, it is even more important that we all take some time to

What exactly is compost?  It's the rotted remains of waste materials which have been broken down and digested by bacteria, worms and insects.  These materials are usually held in a pile (though as you see, that term can be used loosely) until fully cooked.  Then it can added to any garden bed.

The materials in the compost pile are best an equal mix of carbon and nitrogen sources by weight.  While I don't advocate taking a scale to your garbage, the easy method of measuring this is approximately 5 parts of brown to 1 part of green.Brown materials include leaves, straw and paper; green material includes grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds (inspite of the fact that the grounds are brown in color). Get this mix right and your compost will cook hot and quickly.  Build a pile too high in carbon and the pile cooks cool and slowly while a pile too high in nitrogen may make the pile anarobic and smelly. Marion Owen keeps the list 163 Things You Can Compost which included several surprises for me. Who knew you could compost Elmer's glue? Tofu? Used Kleenex?

I have a 3 quart container in my kitchen where I can quickly slip fruit skins, vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds and tea bags.  I also shred the unnecessary papers that result from the mail.  Every day or two, I carry these scraps out to my compost pile so they can begin breaking down.  Adding the handfuls of shredded paper mean each batch contains both a mix of brown and green materials.

When making compost there is one important fact to keep in mind.  Remember I mentioned that these items are consumed by bacteria, worms and insects?  These are very small organisms.  The finer you can chop these items the easier they are for the composting organisms to digest.  Imagine trying to eat a hamburger that is hand-sized vs. one that is the size of a house. Which would you more easily consume?

Now that you have compostable materials, what should you do? 

There are a number of different ways to build a compost pile.  The Compost Guide has all the basic information about setting up a compost pile. If you are just starting to build your garden beds, you can dramatically improve your soil by trench composting.  Dig a trench about 12-18" deep in your bed, place your compostable material in the trench and cover. This is a very effective method to dispose of lots of chopped leaves in the late fall.

Three years ago, I wrote about my own composting process.  Hasn't changed since then.

made a nice video of their different composting styles:

Julie Artz Demistified Compost last February.

Daisy of the appropriate Compost Happens, posted about her compost, including links to photos and previous posts.

Anna's Cool Finds wrote about an in-house composting set-up she's trying in her condo.

Debra Roby blogs her creative life at A Stitch in Time and her journey to fitness at Weight for Deb.

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