Anyone planning a home garden should consider including a compost bin in their plans. Organic compost is one of the easiest, most effective ways to improve the quality of your soil and increase the yield from your plants. Compost not only acts as fertilizer, but also improves soil structure and can even protect your plants from disease. Compost is incredibly easy to make and requires minimal cost and effort! All you need are organic materials to compost (such as leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, paper, etc.) and a place to let these materials bio-degrade—a compost bin.
You can purchase fancy tumbler compost bins from home centers and websites, but I prefer a simpler and more affordable option. My compost bin is constructed of wooden pallets that I screwed together to form a box. The slats in the pallets allow air to circulate, which aids in the composting process. (Wooden pallets can be found all over the place and can often be had for free. I found mine in a dumpster on a construction site.) I also found a piece of plywood which I use as the lid for the bin. I cut one of the pallets in half in order to create a removable panel which would give me better access for turning the pile and adding material. The compost bin takes up about a 4′x4′ area in the corner of my backyard, so even if you’re short on space, you should be able to find room to build your compost bin. The larger the bin, the more material it can hold and thus the more compost it can produce. Try to estimate how much compost you’ll need for your garden when planning the size for your compost bin. For larger gardens, multiple bins may be needed. (It’s usually better to have several smaller piles than one large pile because a large pile will be much harder to mix.)
The best compost is made from a blend of nitrogen-rich “green” material and carbon-rich “brown” material. Examples of nitrogen-rich materials would be grass clippings, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds. Carbon-rich materials include leaves, paper, wood chips and twigs. Having an even blend encourages the materials to break down and produce compost. This process is called “cooking” because the pile actually heats up as the material breaks down. If your pile is hot, you’ll know that it’s working. Too much nitrogen or carbon will mean that your compost pile is not going to cook efficiently, and therefore it will take longer for the material to break down.
To help you get started, here are some great tips for creating great compost for your garden:
• Gather all grass clippings and “green” yard waste but be sure to mix with the “brown” materials like leaves and shredded paper to add carbon. If you have too much nitrogen-rich material, your pile will compact and start to stink.
• Never compost animal by-products (meats or pet droppings). Stick with food scraps and yard waste only.
• Avoid all pesticides and herbicide treated materials. For example, if you recently spread weed-killer on your lawn, don’t add the clippings.
• If you add weeds to your pile make sure your pile is good and hot. It should be steaming hot, otherwise it may not kill the weed seeds. Then you’ll end up with weeds in your garden come springtime.
• Turn your pile as often as you can with a pitch fork or shovel. Turning it will speed up the process. Turning once or twice a week should be sufficient.
• Keep your compost damp but never wet. As you add material to your pile make sure that each layer is moist as it is added. During the summer your pile can dry out and the composting process will slow down. During the rainy season your pile can get too wet which will slow or stop the cooking process. Keep your pile covered to hold in moisture but keep out rain.
• Add compost to your garden a few weeks before planting. Work the compost into the soil with a metal rake or a garden tiller.
• Worms are great! If you see worms in your compost, then you probably have a good mix. Worms will help further break down the material.
• The center of your compost pile should hold a temperature between 120 and 150 degrees. Composting is easier during the warmer months because it is far easier to keep the temperature of the pile in this range.
Benefits of Making Your Own Compost
• Improves the soil structure and creates a better plant root environment
• Increases moisture infiltration and permeability of heavy soils, reducing erosion and runoff
• Improves water-holding capacity, keeping your soil moist longer between watering
• Supplies a variety of nutrients directly to your plants
• Control / suppresses certain soil-borne plant diseases
• Supplies significant quantities of organic matter
• Improves and stabilizes soil pH