Composting is the process of decomposing organic material into a nutrient-rich, dark, crumbly substance also known as humus. Compost is ideal for gardeners because of the nutrients it adds to the soil, doing wonders for plants. Composting is an inexpensive process that is easy to learn, although there is a bit of an art to composting. Just the right amount of air, surface area, moisture, and ingredients are key to successful composting.
To begin a compost pile in your own backyard, you will first need a bin. You can purchase one from a local gardening store, or you can construct one yourself out of chicken wire or wood pallets. Ideally, the bin should be between 3’ x 3’ x 3’ and 5’ x 5’ x 5’. Smaller bins will not retain enough heat, and larger bins will not aerate properly. Bins should be placed in a semi-shady area, to keep the compost from drying out.
Once your bin is in place, you will need to layer green and brown materials in equal quantities by weight. The green materials are nitrogen-based and will activate the heating process. Examples of green materials are grass cuttings, green leaves, manure, fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds and tea leaves. The brown materials are carbon-based and are the fiber of the compost. Brown materials include autumn leaves, dead plants, cardboard, straw, and hay. Large pieces should first be shredded or broken up to increase their surface area and thus speed up the compost process. As you add each layer to your bin, lightly sprinkle it with water. Having the right amount of moisture is important to the process, and the pile should be moist, but not damp.
Before long, organisms such as earthworms will inhabit your compost pile and begin the process. Your pile should be maintained by turning it with a pitchfork or shovel approximately every two weeks. When turning your pile, be sure to break apart any large, matted clumps and bring material from the bottom to the top, and from the inside to the outside. Proper aeration is important to composting, because it keeps the right type of bacteria growing in your pile. You will know if your compost pile is not properly aerated if it smells of ammonia.
If all goes according to plan, you will eventually have a layer at the bottom of the pile that can be used for gardening. Once the compost is ready, it should immediately be used while it retains most of its nutrients. Compost can be mixed in with soil before planting, or it can be layered on top of soil as you would layer mulch.
If you do not have your own yard where you can compost, don’t worry! Composting can also be done indoors. It is nearly the same, only on a much smaller scale. A small bin can be kept in your garage, on a balcony, or even under your kitchen sink. Make sure the bin has small holes on the bottom for aeration, and a lid to reduce odors. Gather your kitchen scraps (green materials), along with some form of bedding (brown materials), and layer them, mixing every two weeks. Soon, you’ll have your very own compost for your window garden or house plants.