Today we are finishing up our spring series on starting your own sustainable garden, with a special lesson on composting. We will cover how and why to compost, as well as dealing with common problems you may encounter when building your own compost.
Benefit of Composting
If you keep a garden, then you know how much organic “waste” you end up with by the time autumn rolls around. There are the little plants you’ve thinned out, the pruning of your pumpkin plants that ran amuck, and the remains of the plants themselves after your successful harvest. Then there are the grass clippings and tree prunings that really belong somewhere other than the garbage can.
Unfortunately, many people waste money and time having these materials transported to a landfill. And this isn’t just a waste of good compost; it’s a waste of everything that goes into the process of transporting it (the garbage man’s time, the money you pay for the removal, etc). It is truly a travesty, and one that can be easily avoided.
All this garbage that people are trying to get rid of can be a better supplement for your garden than any fertilizer or chemical! If you properly facilitate the decomposition of all of the garbage, it will turn into highly beneficial nutrition for your plants. Therefore you can turn all the stuff you would have thrown out into top grade fertilizer for your garden.
It’s time to start composting all of your yard and garden waste as well as your kitchen scraps. Composting means the waste stays out of the landfills and provides you with an excellent source of “black gold” for very little money or effort on your part!
Building Your Compost
Usually compost is maintained in a pile somewhere in your backyard. For some, the thought of a compost heap brings disturbing images to mind, such as heaps of rotten garbage emitting a horrid odor. However, if you maintain your compost pile correctly, you’ll be able to produce great compost without producing an offensive odor (or really any odor at all).
You can build your own compost pile using a variety of different materials, such as wooden pallets tied together at the corners to form a square, as well boards, stakes and wire, or other materials. Or you can just throw everything in a big pile on the ground, if you have enough space! Just be aware that you will need to have a method to get air into the bottom layers of the pile, if you want it to compost quickly. This can be done by turning the pile by hand via shovel, or using an aeration tool to poke holes into it. (If using pallets, this can be easy, as you can poke holes in between the slats, all the way down the sides.)
However, if you live in an urban area, or don’t have much garden space, and a large compost pile is not really an option for you, you can still make great compost using a compost bin. There are many commercial varieties on the market and you don’t have to look any farther than your favorite garden store. Or make your own bin — one method is a plastic garbage can with holes drilled all over the sides and bottom for aeration and drainage.
Personally, I have had great success with a small compost tumbler. The one I use is the Envirocyle Backyard Composter (I’ll try to post some pictures of my compost later this summer as it really gets going.)
In fact, this works so well, that even with a larger garden space, I can just maintain several of these throughout the season!
A non-smelly compost is made up of three components; green, brown, and soil plus manure. Green refers to grass clippings, vegetable scraps from the kitchen, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, tea bags, and other organic garbage and garden or yard refuse. The brown ingredients are dead leaves, small twigs and other small prunings, and you can also add newspaper or shredded brown paper bags (no more than a fifth of your pile should consist of paper, as it has a harder time composting with the rest of the materials). Don’t add meat scraps, bones, or other animal products, as these will attract wildlife and flies, and create bad odors.
It is usually pretty easy to find materials for your compost, but the challenge comes in getting it to compost.
The easiest way to compost is to just add roughly equal parts of the green, brown, and dirt plus manure. When you add additional items to the pile; like your banana peels, strawberry tops and potato peelings, throw some more leaves and dirt on top. This keeps it from smelling. You can just leave the pile pretty much to itself and you will eventually end up with compost. However, this easy method takes a while to turn the waste material into finished compost.
If you want to speed things up, make sure everything you put in your pile has been cut small or been shredded, especially leaves, paper, and straw. Turn your pile regularly with a pitch fork or shovel to speed things up. Doing this will increase the oxygen flow to each part of the pile, and oxygen is needed for decomposition to take place. Turning will also help with water penetration. Your pile should be damp and may require watering occasionally.
I would recommend that you have two compost bins going; one that’s almost done and the other that’s being currently added to. Otherwise, you won’t ever have a finished product. I have a small garden, so I keep a winter compost and a summer one. When I start my garden in the spring, the compost from the previous summer is well done and ready to add to my soil. Since not much composting happens during the winter in the cold climate where I live, I then use the winter compost to start off my summer batch, and add to it through the summer. This system functions well for my climate, but if you live somewhere warmer, you may be able to have multiple batches done each year.
You will know your compost is ready when it smells good (like dirt) and it’s a rich dark color. There should not be any clumps of partially decayed old vegetables in it.
It is truly amazing how all your scraps like grass clippings, carrot peelings, leaves, and green garden refuse can turn into nutrient-rich dark brown compost that’s perfect food for your plants! By starting your own compost, not only will you have a way to get rid of your waste in a sustainable way, you will be creating healthier soil and hopefully growing wonderful plants and vegetables.
To wrap up, here are a few quick “troubleshooting” tips for your compost:
Problem: Pile doesn’t seem to be decomposing
Solution: Your materials are either too dry, or you have too much “brown” material, and not enough green. Try adding some more fresh garbage or green materials, sprinkle with water, and turn. Things should start “cooking” within a few days. (Note: if the weather is cold, your compost will progress much more slowly, so if this is the case, just be patient, and it will go faster when things warm up.)
Problem: Pile is stinky, or attracting flies or other pests
Solution: Your materials are too wet, you have too much green material, and not enough brown, or you are adding inappropriate materials, such as meat scraps. Try adding some brown leaves or straw, or a bit of shredded newspaper, turn or tumble your compost, and don’t add any water for a few days. If it’s really smelly, you may also want to add a plain layer of brown materials on top and just leave it for a few days. Then turn and see if it’s better. Also using an enclosed compost tumbler or bin as suggested above can help prevent flies and other pests. My compost is pretty much never smelly, and rarely ever even has bugs around it.
Well, there you have it! I hope you have enjoyed the spring gardening series, and learned enough to get your own garden started. Of course, this is just the beginning of your garden adventure! We will add new posts throughout the summer on various matters relating to sustainable and organic gardening. We will also get into some more advanced issues, such as square-foot gardening, vermicomposting, hydroponics, natural pest control, and much more! Yay! Be sure to check back to learn more….
See you then!
P.S. If you would like to receive weekly tips and articles on sustainable gardening, be sure to check out our website, and subscribe to our free weekly Sustainable Gardening Newsletter! (It’s free, and you will only receive an email once a week, so we won’t over-run your inbox!)