How to make your own compost
Don’t turn up your nose at this "black gold” for the landscape
By George Weigel, Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist (PCH)
I get to see a lot of home gardens in a year’s time, and the one thing I’ve noticed that sets apart a true gardening maestro from your everyday hacker is a compost bin.
The best and most experienced gardeners almost always have a compost bin or two somewhere in the yard. They’ve learned there’s no more important "secret” to success than good soil, and compost is the best way to get there.
This black gold is teeming with microorganisms that healthy, living soil needs to nurture plants.
When you cook it out of a blend of many different organic materials, you end up with a highly nutritious finished product that feeds plants a royal diet. The "fluffy,” highly organic result also is great for adding air space to compacted soil, thereby improving drainage in wet weather.
On the other hand, plants growing in compost-enriched soil do better in droughts, too, because the roots are better developed in the loosened, nutritious soil — not to mention the sponge-like role the additional organic matter plays.
If that’s not enough, a boatload of new research shows that compost has natural disease-fighting properties to help plants fend off mildew, leaf spot and other common problems.
And composting is a great way to recycle organic waste that otherwise ends up in a landfill or shoved down water-wasting garbage disposers. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, about 20 percent of the 4.5 pounds of waste a typical American produces each day is compostable food and yard waste.
In short, composting is the single most important thing you can do to become a better gardener — especially in the plant-murdering clay and shale "soil” that most Pennsylvanians have.
Easier than you might think
"People think it’s more complicated than it really is,” says Patti Olenick, a soil scientist and organic recycling coordinator for the state DEP. "Composting is actually pretty easy. Anybody can do it.”
As former Mississippi Extension agent Felder Rushing likes to put it, composting boils down to two simple rules: 1.) Pile it up, and 2.) Let it rot.
Olenick says you can speed up the process by doing things like chopping materials into small pieces before piling them up, paying attention to what you mix in, and regularly turning the pile. But even if you do none of that, it’ll still eventually break down into compost. "Nature will see to that,” Olenick says.
Olenick uses a low-work system in which she removes finished compost from the bottom of her bin while regularly adding fresh materials to the top. I use a similar game plan, and my pile doesn’t stink, doesn’t attract varmints and isn’t an obtrusive eyesore.
Composting gets a lot of undeserved bad raps that just a little know-how solves.
For instance, a pile can smell if you load it up with nothing but grass clippings or if you toss rotting meat and bones on it. It can attract skunks and other unwanted wildlife if you pile those same meat and bones or other food waste on top. And it can look ugly if you locate it in a prime view from the patio and use semi-rotten scrap wood for a bin.
Let’s start with looks.
I made my two side-by-side bins out of 1-by-6 lumber slats and 4-by-4 posts. The front slats are loose and can be slid in one by one as the pile fills. Or they can be removed altogether when I empty the bin.
I tucked the bins in the back corner of the yard — nestled between my neighbor’s back row of Douglas firs and a blue holly I planted to help screen it from our patio. For good measure, I surrounded the partly visible back and one side with wooden lattice, which I grow vines up to disguise the whole thing.
In small yards, you could simply buy one of those molded-plastic compost bins or compost tumblers. DEP and Penn State Extension offices in 50 Pennsylvania counties even give away free bins to people who sign up for free half-day composting classes.
"We’ve given away 55,000 bins in 6 years,” says Olenick, "and we still get calls constantly. The Extension offices always have a waiting list to get in.” (Call your local Extension office to get current times and to sign up.)
You don’t even need a bin at all. Things like cinder blocks, tied-together pallets, staked-up wire bins, snow-fencing, etc. also keep the pile confined.
You might hear about correct "carbon-to-nitrogen ratios,” compost "activators” and all sorts of other technical guidance. But the truth is, any reasonably varied mix of organic materials will break down in time without any help from you.
"Composting is a very forgiving process,” says Olenick. "It can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be.”
The easiest way to get a good mix is to think in terms of "browns” and "greens.”
Browns are high-carbon and generally drier materials such as dried leaves, straw, paper, sawdust and twigs. Greens are high-nitrogen and generally moister materials such as grass clippings, kitchen peelings, spent plants, weeds that haven’t gone to seed and coffee grounds.
Don’t worry so much about exact ratios, although it’s best to shoot for about two to three times as many browns as greens.
If you pile up all green materials like grass clippings, it’ll turn to slime and start to smell like ammonia. If you pile up all brown materials like fallen leaves, they’ll just sit there, mat down and look pretty much the same a year later.
Some people segregate the browns and greens and then mix them together when they’re ready to build a pile, which is ideally sized at about 4 feet tall, wide and long, by the way.
I use the pile-as-you-go method and have found that I usually end up with enough of each that the pile slow-cooks without even turning it. To discourage pests, I cover food scraps with leaves or grass clippings.
I clear out my bins in October because that’s an ideal time to work finished compost into my garden beds and because that’s when lots of new material is ready (falling leaves, year-end grass clippings, frost-killed garden plants, etc.)
The first thing I do is use a pitchfork to flip the uncomposted stuff off the top of one bin onto the other. A foot or two down is when I usually get into the semi-composted stuff.
I flip this stuff onto a 2-by-2-foot square sifter I built out of metal hardware cloth and a few 2-by-4’s. The fine compost falls through into a garbage can while the coarser pieces remain on the screen.
The coarse stuff goes on top of my beds as mulch. The light, fluffy, finely sifted compost is pure gardening magic dust that I dig into my garden beds and use to topdress the lousy shale soil in my lawn.
Once the pile is empty, I flip the uncomposted material from the second bin into the empty first bin until I reach the semi-composted layer in the second bin. I always empty that one, too, long before I run out of good places to use it all.
The uncomposted material is the beginning of next year’s compost, and I pile new stuff on top of it.
In a few weeks, both bins are full again. As the pile cooks, it continually reduces in size so I’m able to keep adding more and more material the following year without it overflowing. If it ever does, I’m adding a third bin.
For more details on backyard composting
* "Basic Composting,” an 87-page illustrated guide written by Carl Hursh and Patti Olenick of the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection and photographed by Alan Wycheck. (Stackpole Books, 2003, $16.95 paperback). Available at bookstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble or online at www.amazon.com.
* The state Department of Environmental Protection’s web pages on backyard composting, which includes tips on building bins, how to recycle grass and how to compost. It’s at www.depweb.state.pa.us. Select Land Topics from the top menu and then "Composting.” Or go to Keywords and enter "compost.”
* The Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania trade group offers lots of free tips, technical information and more resources at its www.proprecycles.org web site.
* The city of Brunswick, Canada, offers a free online composting book called "Backyard Magic” at www.gnb.ca/0009/0372/0003/0001-e.asap.
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Good nitrogen-rich materials to add to your compost pileBlood meal
Cow, horse, pig or poultry manure
Fruits and fruit peelings
Vegetables and vegetable peelings
Good carbon-rich materials to add to your compost pile
Branch or twig prunings
Pine chips or needles
Wool or cotton scraps
Items NOT to add to your compost pile
Charcoal or coal dust
Diseased leaves and plants
Herbicide-treated weeds and grass
Human or pet manure
Magazines and glossy printed paper
Milk, cheese and dairy products
Plastic, metal and other inorganic materials
Weeds that have gone to seed
Source: Pa. Department of Environmental Protection