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Gardening is such a rewarding experience. I love watching the plants come up from seed, growing big and healthy through the season. Then comes the harvest! Being able to provide healthy, organic food straight from my backyard makes all the hard work worth it.
But it wasn't long ago that I would plant my seeds, wait patiently for something to happen, and then be disappointed at the lack of growth. Or sometimes I would plant a seed, it would come up and look beautiful, but in no time, it was turning yellow or wilting. I would try adding different amendments, hoping that I could save the plants before they withered and died. Sad…
I know it can be frustrating for your garden not to produce in the way you think it should. What I have learned is it all comes down to your soil. That's right - healthy soil will give you the most significant benefit every time. Fertilizers might have an impact for a short period, but they aren't fixing your soil or giving it everything it needs to be healthy long term. There are key nutrients that fertilizers lack for overall soil health. And overall soil health equates to plant health.
Adding organic amendments to your soil will help it over time as well. But a faster, easier way to give your soil the nutrition it needs is to add compost. Starting a compost pile is an easy way to get to healthier garden soil. It may seem daunting to start a compost pile. I know it was for me. Some of the questions in my head were things like:
- Adding greens and browns? What does that even mean?
- How much of what do I have to add?
- When can I add materials?
- What shouldn't I put in the compost pile?
- Where should I put it?
- What should I put it in?
- How often do I have to turn it? How do I turn it?
It seems like a lot of information to figure out, but let's break it down into a simple process so that you can get your compost pile started right away.
Why You Should Have a Compost Pile:
- Helps build your soil: You will have richer soil that contains more nutrients, minerals and organic matter. Your plants will thrive off this by giving them the ability to take up more nutrients. Compost will create a better soil structure which will provide you with better drainage and less erosion. Plus, all the good bacteria and fungi will be happy with the addition of compost.
- It's good for the environment: Instead of sending your trash to the landfill, you can compost a lot of it to feed back to your garden. This reduces the methane emissions from the landfills. It also lowers your carbon footprint.
- Saves you money: Instead of having to go out and buy fertilizer every year, you can use compost that you have made. Compost contains more nutrients and minerals than fertilizer. It also improves your soil health for the long term instead of just for the season. And, it also reduces chemicals being used if you were using a chemical fertilizer.
How to Start a Compost Pile:
There are just a few things you need to start a compost pile. You will need a container to put your materials in. You will also need carbon, nitrogen, water and air. Easy enough….
What should you put the compost in? You have different options depending on where you live and how much space you have. You can buy an enclosed compost bin like this. Or you can make an enclosed bin out of a trash can like this. Just drill holes on the lid and down the sides of the bin.
If you have more space, you can make a compost bin out of pallets. The plans for this one has three bins. Having the three bin system can be useful. One bin is for compost that is just starting, the second bin is for compost in progress and the third bin is for compost that is complete.
Another option is to use chicken wire or mesh. Here is an example.
Finally, you can put your compost directly on the ground in a pile. Just make sure that you don't make the pile too large. About three to four feet wide and three to four feet high is probably the maximum size you want your pile to be.
Where Should You Put the Compost?:
Your compost can be placed anywhere that is convenient for you. It doesn't have to be in direct sun or in shade. The internal temperature will heat up no matter where you put it if you turn it frequently enough. It should be close enough to a water source that you can easily spray it down with water as needed to keep it moist. Make sure it isn't too far from the house. You want to make it convenient to dispose of your kitchen scraps.
What Should You Put in the Compost?:
Back to our four ingredients - water, air, carbon and nitrogen. Air will be circulated through the pile when you turn your compost. You will want to keep the compost moist (about 40 - 60% moisture). The best way to test the moisture level without getting too scientific is to pick up a handful and squeeze it. It should remind you of a damp sponge. If your compost starts to dry out, spray it with a hose until it’s the right moisture level again.
Carbon and nitrogen were the parts of compost that always scared me. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen should be about 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.
If you have too much or too little of either component, it may slow down your composting process a little, but all is not lost. You will still end up with compost in the end.
Without worrying too much about the ratio of carbon to nitrogen, just be aware of how much "brown" material and how much "green" material you are adding to your pile. Brown material supplies carbon, while green material provides nitrogen.
Shoot for two parts green to one part brown. This means you can add two buckets of green, nitrogen rich materials for every one bucket of brown, carbon rich materials. Example: I add two five-gallon buckets of grass clippings and garden weeds that haven't gone to seed. Then I add one five-gallon bucket of dried leaves.
But don't let the ratios deter you. It really doesn't have to be perfect. Different people use different ratios with great success. Some people use a one to one ratio and some people don't even measure. You will end up with compost in the end either way. Your timeline may vary a little.
Most of the brown and green material you add to your pile will be pretty intuitive. Dry materials are usually brown materials that are high in carbon. Some examples would include leaves, wood chips, saw dust, twigs, straw, cardboard and non-glossy paper. Examples of green materials which are high in nitrogen consist of grass clippings, garden debris, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and blood meal.
Tip: If you start smelling a yucky odor, you are low on carbon! Add more leaves, paper or wood chips.
Things that shouldn't be added to your compost include: meat or animal products, dairy products, pet waste, chemicals, weeds that have gone to seed and diseased plants.
Break down the materials before you compost them by cutting them into smaller pieces whenever possible. This will decrease the time it takes for your materials to break down and compost.
One thing that I find really handy is having a compost pail in the kitchen. I throw all the kitchen scraps in there as I'm cooking. When it gets full, I can take it out to the compost pile. Make sure you find one that is made of high quality stainless steel or ceramic so it doesn't rust. Check the lid to make sure it is snug but not so tight that you can't pull it off. Bonus if it has a filter. You can also get liners to put in your compost pail.
Tip: If you don't want to get fancy and buy a compost pail, you can just use a bowl and cover it with a lid.
When Can I Add to My Compost Pile?
You can add materials to your compost anytime. One thing to keep in mind is if you keep adding materials to one pile, it will never be done. You will just keep mixing new materials into the pile. One way to avoid this “never finished” compost is to have two compost piles or compost containers. That way, you can have one pile where you are turning the compost until it is done. The other pile will be where you are collecting materials until you are ready to start your next round of compost.
During the summer, your compost will break down a lot faster because it will be able to heat up with warmer weather. During the winter, expect that it will take your compost longer to break down because of the colder weather.
You've established your compost pile and you've been adding lots of browns and greens. Now what? You have a couple of options. You can let the compost sit and wait until it breaks down. This method takes longer. It could take up to a year to be completely broken down. It is a good option if you won't be able to get out there very often to turn it. Some people call this the lazy option because you don’t really have to do anything other than add materials to the pile.
The other option is to create a hot compost pile. This option has a few advantages. The most significant advantage is that your compost will be done faster! Another advantage is that any weed seeds that sneak into your compost will mostly be killed.
How Often do I Have to Turn My Compost and How do I Turn it?
With the hot composting method, you will wait about two weeks for it to start heating up. Then you will want to turn your pile about once a week. Do this by using a garden spade or fork. Turn the material from the outside to the inside of the pile and the material from the inside of the pile to the outside. This helps everything stay hot and break down more quickly. If you have a tumbling compost bin, make sure to keep up with turning that as well.
With the hot method, you can use a thermometer to check the temperature. You should see it go up to between 110 degrees and 160 degrees. When the temperature starts to drop, it's a good time to turn your compost. After a while, the temperature will no longer increase. This means your compost is almost ready.
How do I Use Compost?
Once your compost turns into a dark, rich humus that crumbles in your hands and doesn't have many big chunks left, you can start using it or let it sit for a little longer to let it cure. Use it by top dressing your beds or turning a little into your soil. You can put it around vegetables, trees and flowers. Compost will help create a better soil structure. It will help feed your plants the nutrients they need (like fertilizer, but better).
You can add compost any time of year. It takes a little time for compost to work itself into the soil and provide benefits. If you have the patience to make compost and let it do its work, you will not be disappointed. Using compost in your garden is an investment into the long-term health of your soil. You will have better yields and healthier plants just by taking this simple step today!