How to Compost Guide

Compost is a dark, crumbly, organic product that you can make yourself by using organic material you have around your house or can obtain from the outside. Compost is similar to the organic matter found in high quality soil and improves the quality of your soil when it is added. If you have sandy soil, it allows the soil to hold more moisture and supplies missing nutrients. If your soil is clay, it makes it more workable.

compost making

Hands holding finished compost

Making compost is not difficult. There are many different methods, such as compost bins, compost crocks, compost tumblers, and the pile in the corner of your garden. There are also many accessories you can buy to insure the success of your compost, as well as books on how to compost.  But a pile, the right mixture of ingredients, and a pitchfork are all you really need.

Compost bins, and compost tumblers can be made out of chicken wire, wood stakes, wooden pallets, food grade drums, wire mesh, black plastic sacks, and other materials.   You can also buy kitchen composters, such as a compost crock or pail made out of ceramic or stoneware,  that you keep in your kitchen until you can add it to your compost. If you are handy, there are patterns and instructions you can use to make your own compost bins or compost tumblers. You can even have a wormery (worm compost bin) and let earthworms do all the work!

Your method of compost making depends on several choices you must make.

  1. Do you like working in your garden regularly and get a wonderful feeling when you turn the compost pile with your pitch fork and see it working?
  2. Do you live in an urban area with limted space and your compost is important to conceal? Would a back porch compost tumbler be better for you?
  3. Do you only get out to your compost pile infrequently and need something in your home to stockpile the raw materials?  Maybe a kitchen compost crock?
  4. Do you get satisfaction from building things and would like to tackle building a compost bin or compost tumbler?
  5. How much raw material do you generate each day?
  6. What’s the weather like where you live? Will the earth freeze in the winter and your compost-in-the-making be covered with snow?
  7. Do you want to get a jump start on your compost over the winter and have a good stock pile for Spring when you start your garden?

You need to analyze your particular situation and then do some research on your chosen method.

The next thing to pay attention to is the composition of the materials you put into your compost pile, whatever system you use. Here is a list of allowable things:

  • Coffee grounds and organic coffee filters
  • Tea bags
  • Egg shells, but wash them first
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Herbacide free grass clippings
  • Hay
  • Shredded leaves
  • Manure (not dog or cat)
  • Peanut shells, but they are slow to decompose
  • Pine needles – very acid
  • Wood shavings, sawdust – slow to decompose
  • Stable bedding – better than pure manure
  • Weeds – cut them up first, very slow to decompose
  • Wheat or oat straw – slow to decompose
  • Wood ash – Don’t use a lot and don’t use ashes from charcoal fires or from wood that was painted

Here is a list of things you shouldn’t put in your compost:

  • Anything fatty, such as butter, cheese, lard, vegetable oil, mayonnaise, sour cream, salad dressing, peanut butter, milk
  • Chicken or any kind of meat
  • Dog and Cat Manure
  • Fish – too smelly
  • Disposable diapers
  • Diseased organic materials

To make successful compost, you need to make sure you have a good mix of several things, such as the good organic materials mentioned above, oxygen, moisture, micro-organisms, and heat.

Aerobic (with oxygen) compost making is what you strive for. This means your pile must be aerated regularly and not allowed to become compacted. Then it’s considered anaerobic (without oxygen) and can cause problems with odor. An anaerobic pile will still compost, and is very little work, but the process takes a long time.

When making compost with a pile or bin, you aerate the material with a pitchfork, or something similar, to turn the pile. With compost tumblers, you turn a crank or handle, which rotates your ingredients, or roll a ball filled with your material around your yard.

If you chose to have a compost pile, size is also important. If your pile is too small, it won’t heat up enough. If it is too large, it will heat up, but be difficult to manage. A good rule of thumb for a “pile” compost heap is about 3′ x 3′ x 3′. The best pile temperature is between 110 degrees F and 150 degrees F. You can purchase a compost thermometer to measure the heat in your pile.

When the heat in your compost pile, by whichever method you have chosen, has returned to normal, your finished organic garden compost should be clean-smelling, dark,  crumbly,  and ready for your garden.

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