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Compost Basics: Making Rich Compost


Compost Basics: How To Make Nutrient Rich Compost
by Dawn Lesley Stewart

Gardens love nutrient rich soil, and one way to add those elements is by creating and using compost.  Other than the expense of buying or building a compost bin, the materials are free. If you prefer using a compost heap, you don’t even need to buy a compost bin.

What is Compost?

Basically, compost is organic matter that has decomposed into a rich mulch-like material.  It is filled with nutrients, which plants benefit from. To make compost, you need organic material, air, light, moisture, and a place to make it. By making compost, you are accelerating the decomposition of organic material so that it is ready to use earlier than if it naturally decayed.

Where Do I Make It?

Compost can be made and stored in a compost bin. There are many styles of compost bins to choose from. A compost bin offers a contained place where organic matter is placed so that it can decompose. The composted matter can also be stored in the bin until you are ready to use it. If you don’t want to purchase a compost bin, you can make your own. Or perhaps you prefer creating a compost heap somewhere in the yard.

What Can I Add to the Compost Bin?

Just about anything organic. This can include leaves, small twigs, grass cuttings, vines, weeds, plant stalks, fruits, and vegetables. You can add wood ashes or sawdust in limited amounts. If I am adding plant stalks, I make sure to snap them into smaller pieces. I also try to add mulched leaves rather than leave them whole. The smaller the pieces, the quicker they will compost. As a rule about two-thirds of the compost should consist of dry materials (ex: leaves), and one-third of wet materials (such as grass clippings). When first adding contents to the bin, make layers of dry and wet materials. I also add a shovelful of garden soil for its microbes (a jumpstart to the decomposition process). I find it easier to use a pitchfork or Garden Claw when turning the compost each month.

What Can’t I Add?

I do not recommend adding large sticks or pinecones, which can take awhile to breakdown depending upon their size. Some people might say to add anything from the kitchen. I only add what is organic and can be grown outside. For instance, I never add egg shells, diary products, meat, animal fats, or cooked table scraps. However, adding apple cores, carrot or cucumber peels, or limp celery is fine. If I add weeds, I am careful to make sure they have not developed seed heads. Also make sure not to add diseased plant parts or anything treated with pesticides.

Does Compost Smell?

I have never had compost emit an odor. I make sure the compost has plenty of air circulation, and I turn it to make sure all parts of it are evenly mixing. It’s important not to add meat or table scraps such as spaghetti or else the compost might attract animals or other pests.

So When Is the Compost Ready to Use?

It’s an ongoing process. In the spring, I shovel out the mulch-like compost that has formed and add it to the vegetable garden, and during the warm weather months I will remove compost to add to plantings throughout the yard. Depending upon the care taken with the compost bin, compost can form anywhere from about four months to a year. I have used compost to enrich the garden and yard, mixing it with the existing soil. Throughout the growing seasons (spring, summer, autumn) I continue to add organic material to the bin; however, I do this in small amounts so that there is always more “old” material than “new”. During the winter when not much is growing outside, anything I add consists of items like apple or carrot peels, undesirable to eat lettuce leaves, or vegetables that might be going by in the refrigerator. Come spring, I always find compost at the bottom of the pile. The bigger the compost bin, the more compost you’ll create.

Hey!  My Compost Bin Isn’t Making Compost – What Happened?

If you find that the organic matter is not breaking down, this can be caused by several factors. It’s a good idea to add a mix of “wet” and “dry” organic matter. For instance, newly mown grass is considered a wet material, and crisp autumn leaves are considered a dry material. Also, the organic matter needs some light as well as moisture (but not too much) to aid in the decomposition process. Plus, the composting material requires aeration and turning. Mixing the compost will also aid in its breakdown. Sometimes it takes experimentation to find the right balance of material and conditions in order to obtain the maximum amount of compost in a timely matter.

Creating compost is a great way to recycle yard waste. Instead of spending money purchasing compost, make your own.  Your garden will thank you!

Happy Gardening !

Dawn Lesley Stewart has enjoyed organic gardening for over forty years, learning at a young age from her father. First love is vegetable gardening followed by her interest in butterfly and bee habitats. She considers her yard a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. Her writing has appeared online and in print and has won writing awards. Dawn is the author of Harriet’s Horrible Hair Day (picture book), Mist-Seer (paranormal novel), and her newest book 300-Plus Quilting Tips, Tricks & Techniques features over 35 years of quilting knowledge.

Copyright 2010 Dawn Lesley Stewart

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Harriet's Horrible Hair Day
The Quilt Guild Companion

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Copyright 2000 Dawn Lesley Stewart