Composting is great, not only because you're reducing waste, but it's an amazing (and free) way to improve your soil and consequently your garden. Last spring I put compost on my garden before planting and my raised garden produced four times more than the previous spring!
So here are the basics of how a compost pile is built (biologically speaking):
- Find a corner of your yard that's a little out of sight, but still easily accessible. There are lots of tutorials on how to build compost bins for little to nothing using pallets and the like. This is on my to do list, but for now I just dump everything in a pile in the corner.
- Put a base of brown materials (see above), then regularly add to your compost pile, keeping in mind the ratios in the chart above: 3 parts brown (carbon rich) to 1 part green (nitrogen rich). Examples of carbon rich materials are leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper, and straw. Examples of nitrogen rich materials are fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, and grass (make sure there are no weeds so you don't spread). My compost ratio isn't always perfect, but keeping them close will ensure that everything decomposes quickly and that the compost doesn't get smelly (too much green material will result in a smelly mess).
- Regularly grab a rake or pitchfork and turn the heap so that everything gets equal moisture and air. Except in the winter, the compost pile should be warm. That means it's working!
- If you want, you can add composting organisms like old compost, soil, or manure (as long as it's not from cats or dogs). These are by no means necessary, but just give your compost a little boost in it's journey to becoming a great soil additive, fertilizer, and plant food.
- Your compost is ready when all of the materials have broken down and are unrecognizable. It will smell nice and earthy (not like rotten food). Grab a shovel and use it as a soil amendment, fertilizer, potting soil, compost tea, or as a lawn top-dressing! There are tons of great uses for this "black gold".
This is something I merely dabble in, and these are only the basics. There are entire books and websites devoted to the art of composting and how to do it "right", so please don't let me be your final source! I'm learning as I go, so I'm sure I'll be posting more on the subject as time goes on. In the mean time, I leave you with a quote from Maureen Gilmer's The Small Budget Gardener...
In all my years of gardening I have never once created and maintained a functional compost pile. Perhaps it was due to the dry climate where I live or the fact that I just didn't have enough stuff to feed it... During those years of "failure" it was not a total loss because that heap consumed tons of leaves and rotten fruit and garden refuse. And maybe I'd get a few shovels of the good stuff now and then. It's value was that I had some place to put all that excess organic matter from garden and kitchen to avoid placing an added burden on the landfill. So if you aren't successful at composting, or if your yields, like mine, are too small to seemingly make much difference, just keep on gardening and composting. It all works out in the end.