Let me just start off by saying that composting is a lot like cherry pie. I know that sounds unbelievable, maybe even gross, but I'll tell you why. When I was a newly wedded wife, I remember the pressure I felt when our first Thanksgiving together rolled around. Even though my mother, the 'Thanksgiving Feast Veteran', had invited us to dinner, I was still excited to impress my husband by making him a pie. You see, in my family, my mother always made pie crust dough from scratch and crafted the most beautifully latticed cherry pies ever! In my mind, qualifying as a 'real women' meant following the same practice.
Needless to say, that year, and every attempt after, resulted in an epic fail for me. Figuring the right amount of kneading, moisture, and everything else was frustration to the max. It wasn't until my mother-in-law introduced me to Pillsbury premade pie crust that I finally abandoned stressing myself out over making the 'perfect crust' and just bought the perfect crust and filled it with yummy goodness. Maybe a small thing, but it took loads of Thanksgiving Day stress off of my shoulders!
Creating and maintaining your own compost bin is a sound gardening practice and a beautiful one to add to your personal growth as a gardener. It is very rewarding to see all of your efforts pay off and use your own compost to bring life and nutrients to your soil. It reduces the amount of chemical fertilizer you'll use and promotes beneficial bacteria and fungi residing in your soil.
However, in the same way that store bought pie crust didn't make me a bad wife, buying compost from the garden center won't make you a bad gardener, either. The point is to feed your soil by incorporating organic matter (compost) into it. My job is to provide information on how to create your own compost from organic matter that surrounds you every day, your job is to decide if it is something that is realistic for your circumstances. Either way, just be sure to add compost to your garden soil!! Your dirt will thank you by feeding your plants in return!
The Compost Recipe
There are three ingredients that make the conditions right for creating compost:
Browns - dead branches, twigs, and - most delicious to a compost pile - dead leaves! Be sure not to include anything that was cut down due to disease or pest infestation - you don't want to spread these things through your soil.
Greens - grass clippings are always the first thing that comes to my mind here but there are many more 'greens' like vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and old coffee grounds. Take note not to include grass clippings or any other greens that have been sprayed with any kind of chemical pesticide or herbicide or your compost will not be a happy place for your garden plants to thrive!
Water - you heard me - water! The right amount of water combined with equal amounts of both browns and greens will create the perfect environment for creating balanced and healthy compost.
The 'How To'
There are as many different methods to accomplish home composting as there are people doing it, so we will just cover basic principles in this article. First of all, location for your compost bin will make a big difference in your level of commitment and success. Composting does create a smell so you won't want to sit by it while you're enjoying your backyard; however, it does require tending so you don't want to hide it away and forget to care for your compost pile either. For your convenience, locate your compost pile near a source of water and in a dry, shady spot where you won't forget it, but it won't be in your way either. Remember, the whole process can take from around two months to a whopping two years! Location is everything!
Once you have found the ideal spot, create a bin to compost in so that your compost is contained within it's area. Again, there are many different ideas for this 'compost containment' and you can buy commercial bins or create your own. A little hunting on Google should show you many ways other people have accomplished creating a bin that works for their needs.
As you get ready to begin composting, keep in mind that there are right and wrong things to add to your pile. For instance, black walnut trees release a substance called 'juglone' that can be toxic to many other plants so you would want to be sure to leave any parts of black walnut trees out of your compost pile. Similarly, coal or charcoal ash may contain harmful substances. Certainly leave out dairy products, fats, greases, oils, lards, meat or fish bones and scraps, and eggs (although you can use the eggshells in your compost) because these things not only smell atrocious when they are left to rot, but can also attract rodents, flies, and other undesirable pests. Any plant material or yard trimmings that have been exposed to chemicals should be left out as well, and, lastly, please don't include any pet wastes (dogs, cats, etc) as they can be full of parasites, bacterias, and more that can be very harmful to humans, especially when used in an edible garden setting.
There are so many things you can put in your compost pile, though, that will allow you to recycle a lot of what could end up in the landfill and nourish your soil at the same time! Absolutely include items in the following list to give back to your dirt:
Fruit and vegetable scraps
Eggshells (but not the egg)
Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags
Nut shells (not black walnut)
Cardboard (SUPER good in compost)
Chemical free yard trimmings
Chemical free grass clippings
Old houseplants (as long as they are healthy)
Hay and straw that is clean
Leaves (also SUPER good for composting)
Cotton and Wool Rags
Hair and fur
Woodburning or pellet stove fireplace ashes
If any of the materials you add are dry, moisten them as you put them into your pile. Be sure to turn your compost pile regularly - using a pitchfork or shovel - mixing all the ingredients together, and add water as needed to maintain a moist, but not excessively soggy, environment. Covering your pile is optional as a way to help maintain appropriate moisture levels and keep critters out. As your pile continues to grow, be sure to mix in clippings well and start burying fruit and vegetable scraps down about a foot deep into it. Over time, you will start to notice that the compost at the bottom of the bin has really broken down and becomes rich and dark in color. This is a good sign that your compost is ready to use! Go feed your dirt and enjoy the riches of your hard work!