Learning how to compost will help get rid of yard and kitchen waste, as well as naturally enrich your garden soil with organic material. There are many composting methods, some simple like pile or wire bin, some more complicated like vermicomposting and rotary or tumbler composting.
The second week of May is International Compost Awareness Week. Look for some of our local Pocono recycling and environmental centers to offer beginners how to compost or organic gardening workshops.
Random House Dictionary defines compost as a mixture of various decaying substances, as dead leaves or manure, used for fertilizing soil. Composting has been used for centuries to improve the structure and water retaining qualities of soil. It makes clay soil lighter and more able to absorb rain water. Sandy soil also benefits from the addition of compost. It becomes more able to retain water and nutrients that would have previously passed through.
Composting usually entails layering yard and garden waste in a 3 to 1 ratio inside some kind of structure. That means three parts carbon-rich material to one part nitrogen-rich material.
Materials rich in carbon include dry leaves and grass clippings, hay, paper, cardboard, pine cones, pine needles and corn cobs.
Nitrogen is found in fresh grass clippings, fruit & vegetable peels, garden trimmings, manure (see below), coffee grounds and tea bags.
Other items you can add that do not really fall into either the carbon or nitrogen category are rinsed egg shells, peat moss, wood ashes and garden soil. These items should be used very sparingly.
Do Not Add:
Home garden compost should never contain meat, dairy, bones, fatty or oily substances, glossy paper, charcoal briquettes from the bar-b-q or manure from any animal that eats meat (yes, dry pet food contains meat).
All of these items can attract unwanted pests, emit foul odors or introduce harmful bacteria, parasites or chemicals to your garden. Home compost piles do not get hot enough to make the addition of any of these items safe.
Some of you may wonder if all that rotting plant material smells. As long as you do not add anything on the Do Not Add list above, your compost will not smell bad. I have only noticed a smell when there are a lot of fresh grass clippings added to the compost. Then it can smell a little musty. It should just smell like damp leaves.
If you do notice an unpleasant odor, try turning the pile every few days. If you still think it smells add some dry, carbon materials to it. This should dry it out some, and reduce the odor.
The alternating dry, carbon-rich and wet, nitrogen-rich materials create a warm, inviting habitat for a variety of microorganisms, bacteria, worms and insects that will break down the materials into what we call compost.
The term for this process is cooking. While you compost is cooking, the inside of the pile will heat up. You may even see steam rising from it in the morning or on a chilly day.
The faster and more uniform the cooking process, the faster your mixture will turn into a dark brown, crumbly mixture that you can use to amend your garden soil for vegetables or fruit trees, raise low spots in the lawn or fill pots for container gardening.
Compost is really free, organic soil. It has many admirable attributes. It reduces the amount of kitchen and yard waste send to landfills. Plants grown in soil enriched with compost are healthier and more able to withstand pest and disease attacks. It also saves money by reducing the amount of store bought fertilizer and pesticide used in your garden.
Some methods of composting require you to purchase or build specific equipment. Most gardeners can get their compost pile started using stuff they already have around the garden.
Our first garden was small, with a lot of shade from oak and maple trees. We needed a way to deal with the over abundance of leaves. We wondered how to compost effectively without spending any money on a property we were renting. Creating a compost heap was our solution.
We had an area between our garage and fence that only received sun in the winter. In early spring, all the fallen leaves were raked in there. We added grass and hedge clippings throughout the spring and summer. Each time new materials were added, the edges of the pile we picked up and put back on top. It was too large to turn the whole pile.
At the end of the first summer we had a lot of compost. We fluffed it with the leaf rake and raked off the materials that were still large. Fluffing probably is not the proper term, but that's what we did. As you pull the material towards you, lift the rake up. The denser material falls to the bottom & the fluffy, uncooked material stays on top.
When you have separated a quarter of the pile from the main heap, lightly rake the top layer back into the main pile. What remains separate is the good stuff.
The pile method is cheap and easy, but it is slow and takes up considerable space. If you need your compost faster or need to breakdown a large amount of material quickly it is not the best method.
In our organic, Wayne County garden we started composting using the wire bin or cage method with some left over 2x4" welded wire fencing. ** Link to Wire Fencing Types page. **
We bent the fencing into hoops 2.5 feet in diameter, secured it with plastic zipties and stood them end. They stand 48" tall. They were anchored to the fence with wire ties. We filled them with leaves, grass clipping, garden debris & kitchen scraps.
There is a photo of one of our wire hoops, on the right.
Because the sides are open, and they are in the sun most of the day, the bins tend to dry out. Once a week or so, I make a small well in the top of the pile & pour in a couple quarts of water.
To turn the pile, I insert the pitchfork into the center & spin it slowly. This turns the inner part of the pile but the outermost material mostly stays put.
A couple of times per season, the end of July & early October, the bins are lifted up and moved.
The dry, uncooked material is put back into the hoop in its new location and the warm finished compost is shoveled into the nearest raised bed.
This is not the neatest way to make your compost, but it can be done by one person. There is no heavy lifting or excessive raking to turn the material.
One drawback to this method is the fact that it is so open, it can attract wildlife. The bins have been raided by deer, raccoons and bear, but the most common visitors are squirrels. They pick through the most recent additions to find tasty tidbits to snack on.
The photo on the left is an example of a compost hoop that you can purchase at your local garden center or online. The are sold rolled up in a tube. All you need to do is unroll it, place it in your yard and pound a few stakes into the ground to hold it.
See more on how to compost with the container, rotary and vermicomposting methods on page 2.
If you have a new technique of composting that we are not aware of or a tip to help other Pocono Gardeners, we would love to hear from you!