Making your own compost and using it to improve your soil, garden and flower beds is a win-win activity. Besides enriching the composition and moisture of the soil, compost also helps to keep pests and plant diseases away. It reduces or prevents the need for chemical fertilizers. And, it provides a sustainable alternative to landfilling food scraps and yard waste.
Composting is pretty easy, too. Here’s a simple, five-step process to help you get started and keep you on the right track:
- Choose your location. Locate your compost pile or bin on level ground that offers drainage and is near a water source. The spot should be at least 3 feet in size and easy to access when adding scraps and rotating layers. You may choose either a sunny or shady location, but having at least some sun is beneficial as it hastens the composting process. You’ll want to ensure that your composting pile or bin is protected from outdoor invaders, like raccoons or skunks, with fencing or chicken wire. You may also want to consider locating the pile or bin in an out-of-the way spot that isn’t directly visible from seating areas and is in a place where any slight composting odors won’t be bothersome.
- Layer brown and green wastes. Begin the pile by alternating layers of brown and green waste, making sure large pieces are chopped, broken or shredded. Make sure to include both brown and green wastes, with a slightly higher proportion of brown wastes than green (anywhere from 2:1 up to 3:1). Brown waste contains the carbon needed for composting, and comes from dead leaves, newspapers, cardboard, branches, twigs, wood chips and cardboard. Green waste provides nitrogen and includes grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peels and scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells and tea bags. Layer the wastes, placing brown wastes on the bottom and green wastes on top. You’ll also need to spray or sprinkle the pile with water at the beginning and throughout the process to keep the materials moist – but not too moist – and encourage the components to break down.
- Note: You should never use fats, oils, dairy products, meats, fish, bones and charcoal. You also don’t want to add pet wastes, plants or yard wastes that have been chemically treated, or that are infested with disease or pests. Don’t add weeds that will go to seed, and avoid adding leaves or twigs from black walnut trees, which release substances that can be harmful to plants.
- Rotate your compost. Continue adding materials, about an inch at a time for each type of waste if possible, moistening the dry materials to help them break down. Alternate layers of different sized materials, too. Once the composting process begins, mix green waste such as grass clippings and produce scraps into the pile, burying them under about 10 inches of the compost material. Once every several days, use a garden fork, spade or even a large stick to move the compost layers around. This helps to aerate the pile, redistribute moisture and keep the composting process going.
- Monitor the process. Pay attention to how the pile looks and smells as it’s composting. If the compost smells rotten, it could be a sign the pile is too wet and needs more brown, dry waste. Or, if the compost pile gets a lot of sunlight, it may become very dry and need additional moisture. You may want to cover your compost pile with a tarp to help keep in some of the warmth and moisture. The material at the bottom of the pile will be ready to use when it’s dark and rich in color, which may take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on weather conditions and sunlight. Finished compost should have an earthy, sweet or even sour smell.
- Use your compost. To use the compost, mix it into garden soil by using a cultivator or other garden tools, or sprinkle the compost on top of beds as a natural fertilizer. You can also layer the bottom of pots with a few inches of the material. Remember, however, that compost does not take the place of garden or potting soil. Consider it more of an additive that will enrich the soil and contribute to healthier plants, vegetables and flowers.