Compost is a dark, mineral-rich material that is the result of decomposed garden and kitchen waste. You can reduce waste in your garden and create free materials for improving soil quality by setting up a bin in your garden.
The most important thing to remember is that compost is a natural process. It is going to happen anyway. We are just trying to speed it up a little and control the end product. Don’t worry! See the bottom of this page for info on how to sign up for a hands-on composting workshop in your area.
There are a variety ways to compost and the style of composting you choose depends largely on what type of organic material you are putting in your compost.
For community gardens, we recommend the following types: Hot & fast, trench, and slow & cool. The trench and slow & cool methods require more space and time than hot & fast, so use these techniques as a back-up. To use up kitchen scraps at home and make some humus-rich compost for your backyard garden, you might also try Vermicomposting (worms) or Bokashi (an anaerobic method using live organisms you can buy online).
What do you need to get started?
A space: Place your bin anywhere that is convenient (a sunny location will help speed up the “cooking” and will require more water than a shady location.)
A bin: While not absolutely necessary, compost piles in bins have a neater appearance and heat up faster, speeding up the composting process. You can buy a bin, or build one inexpensively from simple materials.
Here’s one example that we love and use often: Take 10-12 feet of 2”x4” welded wire fencing 36 inches high. Leave one-inch lengths of horizontal wire sticking out on one side. Form a cylinder and use the one-inch lengths of wire to hook around the other end to hold the fencing together. To turn the pile, simply unhook the wire and lift the fencing away from the pile. Set up again right next to the pile and use a pitch fork to fork the pile into the new bin.
Tools: A shovel, garden hose, wheelbarrow (for transporting), rake (for keeping the area tidy), pitchfork or similar tool (optional, but useful for aerating and turning your compost), and a 3-4 length of 5/8” rebar (not absolutely necessary, but can be used to aerate pile and can serve as a cheap thermometer to see if your pile is heating up like it should be.) See note below.
The best way to make compost is in batches, filling your bin to the top with the proper materials. This aerobic (with air!) composting is powered by microbes that require oxygen. You make compost by combining the right amounts of water, air, carbon, and nitrogen.
Water and air: Make sure your batch is thoroughly moistened. The pile should be moist but no water should come out if you squeeze a handful. Air is provided by turning the compost or by including chunky materials such as twigs and Sweet Gum tree gum balls.
Carbon: This is the “brown” material you add to your batch. One of the easiest (and cheapest!) sources is fallen leaves, which can be collected in the fall and stored for multiple batches throughout the year. Other brown material includes: spoiled hay and straw, shredded paper and cardboard, and stable litter.
Nitrogen: This is the “green” material and is what heats up your pile. Sources include fresh manure from farm animals (not from your house pets!), grass clippings, and raw vegetable kitchen scraps (no meat or dairy!). Coffee grounds, though brown, are actually “green material.” You can also use purchased materials such as alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, blood meal or commercial fertilizer.
***A note on grass clippings: Grass is a very rich nitrogen source, but clippings can easily clump together to form a stinky mess in your compost. They make a great natural mulch for your lawn, so one solution is to just leave them there. If you want to add them to your compost, mix them with sawdust or dry leaves before adding to your batch.
Layer the raw materials, following this sequence 3 or 4 times until your bin is full:
1. Add about one foot of leaves (about 3-4 bags in the simple bin described above). Pack it down with a rake and wet the leaves.
2. Add nitrogen (food scraps, cow manure, grass clippings, etc), spreading it evenly over the surface of the leaves, sprinkle on 6 cups of organic fertilizer or 12 cups of alfalfa meal (the fertilizer or alfalfa is optional but will speed up decomposition.)
3. Add one shovelful of rich soil or finished compost (to introduce some beneficial microorganisms that do all the heavy lifting.)
4. Mix well with a garden fork while watering until the layer is soaked.
5. Repeat until the bin is full. Be sure to end with a layer of carbon to reduce odors. Some composters also add one inch of soil to the top of the bin to reduce odors.
If you don’t turn, you have a cool pile and that’s okay; it will simply take longer to get rich compost. Remember, don’t worry, compost happens!
Turn a layered pile after the first two weeks, then three times over the next two months. If you start your pile in the spring, it should be ready in 4-6 months. If you start in the fall, it should be ready in 8-10 months.
An alternative to turning is to take the dowel or rebar (see tools) and push holes into the compost from time to time, allowing air into the center of the pile.
Worms can be added to cold compost piles to help speed up the rate of decomposition. You will want to keep the pile moist, but not wet and you will want to monitor the temperature of the pile in the summer months so that you do not cook your worms. If your pile is sitting on the ground, worms will find it and will come and go as they please as your compost heats up.
NOTE: Earthworms in your outdoor compost pile is not the same thing as worm composting. Worm composting (or vermicomposting) is feeding your vegetable food scraps to a specific type of earthworm called a red wiggler. For more info on worm composting visit www.WormCompostingHQ.com
Bring leaves and food scraps from home to add to the compost pile! Talk your parents into vermicomposting (composting with worms) because it is just plain awesome.
To sign up for a composting workshop put on by our fabulous partner the Solid Waste Division of Mecklenburg County, visit WipeOutWaste Home Composting.
By Henry Owen with assistance from Kathy Metzo and Carol Adams