The sun is warmer, the ground is softer and green leaves are starting to poke out everywhere you look. It’s time to get healthy soil back into your yard and garden for spring planting, and compost will give your seeds and seedlings the nutrients they need.
What Is Composting?
Compost is decayed plant matter, and composting is the process that helps speed up the breakdown of organic matter. Composting has become a fairly popular practice in the last few years, with even urban gardeners starting mini compost bins in their apartments. Starting your own compost pile provides a two-fold benefit: You have a use for all those lawn clippings and fallen leaves, and your garden gets free, high-quality soil.
Composting can be done in a large bin, or you can keep it in a pile. You’ll want to keep your pile around 3 feet wide by 3 feet high by 3 feet deep, as any larger will slow down the composting process. Find a location that is conveniently located near your garden, but keep it away from wood fences and walls, as your wood will decompose along with the rest of the pile!
You’ll want an area that has good drainage and gets sunlight (heat will speed the process). You can buy a container, or make your own. One simple solution is to buy a large heavy-duty plastic trash can and drill aeration holes throughout.
The key to healthy compost is keeping a balance between carbon-rich material and nitrogen-rich material. A good rule is to use two-thirds carbon-based (or brown) materials and one-third nitrogen-based (or green) material.
- Carbon-rich materials include: branches, stems, dried leaves, bits of wood, brown paper bags, egg shells, sawdust pellets and coffee filters
- Nitrogen-rich materials include: manure, food scraps, green lawn clippings and green leaves
- Non-compostable materials include: meat products, rice and bread products, ashes and lime
Once you’ve picked a spot for your pile or bin and collected some ingredients, it’s time to start composting.
- Layer: Start your pile with a layer of twigs and/or straw to allow good drainage at the bottom, and build your pile by alternately layering nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials. Adding a layer of manure will help jumpstart your pile.
- Keep things small: Chop up compost material as small as possible; greater surface area for decomposers means quicker breakdown of matter.
- Cover your pile: If you don’t have a bin with a lid, cover your pile with a tarp.
- Keep it moist: Make sure your pile stays moist (but not soggy), by watering occasionally or by letting the rain do the work.
- Aerate your pile: Turn your pile with a pitchfork or shovel every few weeks to ensure the compost gets the oxygen it needs to break down.
Putting Your Compost to Good Use
The time it takes for your compost to be ready to use depends on the size of the pile, the ingredients, the temperature, precipitation, etc. However, if you keep your pile small, finely chop the material and turn it often, you can have beautiful compost in as little as three months. It should look dark brown and crumbly, but not powdery, and you shouldn’t be able to recognize the original materials that went into it. Once it’s ready, incorporate your compost into the soil when preparing for each planting season.