When you’ve got less than ideal soil conditions, composting is your easiest and most affordable solution. Like so many aspects of organic gardening, composting is based on the way nature works. By recycling organic materials back into the soil, it’s part of the natural cycle of life. And it’s not as gross as you might think.
Hitting pay dirt with compost
Compost is a dark, crumbly material created when microorganisms break down organic matter like leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste. This simple decomposition process offers tons of benefits:
- Building healthy soil, healthy gardens: By enriching soil structure and texture, compost helps soil hold water and air, increases soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development.
- Reducing landfill waste: Food scraps and yard waste account for 20-30% of the waste stream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By keeping these materials out of landfills, composting also cuts production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s causing dangerous changes in our climate.
- Saving money on fertilizer and water: Although compost isn’t technically a fertilizer, it feeds the soil with nutrients, which in turn reduces or eliminates the need to fertilize the plants. Since composted soil retains moisture, you don’t need to water as much either.
Getting started with composting: Pick your spot and tools
All you need for composting is a little space, a few basic tools and some plant-based waste like paper, yard waste and food scraps.
- Outdoors or indoors: If you’re composting outdoors, choose a dry, shady or partly shady spot near a water source and preferably out of sight for your compost pile or bin. Ideally, the area should be at least 3 feet in width, depth and height, but it can be smaller or larger and still work fine.
Even if you don’t have any outdoor space, you can still compost indoors by using a special type of bin you can make yourself or buy at a local hardware or garden supply store. (You can also try vermicomposting, which uses red wiggler earthworms and requires less space than normal composting methods.)
- Bin or no bin: While you can buy a bin, you can also make one or just use a pile. Keep in mind there’s nothing magical about commercially made bins – they won’t make compost any faster or better quality than a simple pile. The only other tool you’ll need is a pitchfork, rake, shovel or hoe for stirring.
You can find easy how-to instructions for making all types of bins through your local county extension service online. Bonus: Many extension services offer free classes that include an entire composting kit – food scrap container, outdoor bin and handy tips – in exchange for your attendance.
Managing your compost pile:
Composting is all about supplying the microorganisms with the essentials of life -- food, water and oxygen – they need to do their decomposing work.
- Feed it: Microbial activity is affected by the proportion of carbon, which comes from “brown” materials like paper and leaves, and nitrogen, which comes from “green” materials like food scraps and fresh yard clippings. While you’ll probably hear about how the optimum carbon to nitrogen ratio (C/N ration) for composting is 30 to 1, there’s no need to obsess about this. Just aim to layer roughly equal amounts of green and brown materials in 3- to 4-inch layers. Always cover green materials with a layer of brown at the top to discourage pests and odor.
- Brown material provides carbon and includes:
- Paper, like shredded pieces of paper, cardboard, and paper rolls
- Dry yard waste, like dry leaves, small branches and twigs, straw, sawdust and used potting soil
- Green material provides nitrogen and includes:
- Wet yard waste like green leaves and soft garden prunings
- Food scraps like vegetable and fruit peels, coffee grounds and tea bags
- Meat, bones, dairy products and foods with oils, dressings or fats (these may attract animals or cause your compost to smell worse than it should)
- Yard waste treated with chemicals, diseased or insect-ridden plants, seed-laden and invasive weeds, and pet waste (chemicals may kill beneficial organisms and the other items can spread disease, insects and weeds when you use your compost)
- Maintain moisture: Materials should be moist, not soggy. If you’re not getting much rain, you should add a little water to the dry brown waste material. It’s essential that each layer is moist as it’s added because it’s almost impossible to moisten the center of the pile as it grows bigger.
- Turn it up: As materials begin to decompose, the pile heats up from the microbial activity. It will begin to cool off in four to seven days and should be turned to mix the materials, which brings more air and heat. Compost can be produced fairly rapidly – about six weeks – if the pile is turned and watered occasionally. The pile will still decompose without turning or watering; it will just take much longer.
The payoff: Use your compost to promote healthy organic gardening
Compost is ready to use and “finished” when it’s dark brown and crumbly. If there are still some large chunks, sift it to remove bigger pieces and return those to the pile.
Add to soil: Compost makes a wonderful soil additive or amendment. Use only finished compost, because microorganisms will steal nutrients from plants as they continue to decompose the unfinished compost. Add 1-3 inches of compost to the soil surface and mix it to a depth of 4-6 inches.
Use as mulch: This is a good use of unfinished compost. Like all mulches, it will continue to break down and need to be re-applied once or twice a year.
Add to potting mix: Blend finished compost with a material that improves the drainage of the mix, such as coarse sand, perlite or vermulite.
Whatever your end goal, you’ll find this dark, earthy-smelling stuff works wonders on all kinds of soil by providing vital nutrients to help your plants grow healthy and strong.