Backyard Composting

Making compost can be a huge benefit for your vegetable garden. It does take some work but for a little time and effort, the rewards are great! A compost pile makes use of your kitchen waste that otherwise would go into the garbage, and is an excellent spot to recycle your weeds (just make sure they have not gone to seed). You can allow other garden debris to decompose in the pile rather than having it go to the landfill. Having a compost pile is also a great way to keep your garden clean. The resulting compost is perfect for using in your garden beds or containers.

Shredded leaves will decompose much faster than whole ones (any tree leaves will work for mulch). Rake fallen leaves into a pile and then run your lawn mower over them. If you have a bag on your mower, that's even better because you can then just empty it into your compost pile or place the shredded leaves directly onto your garden bed as mulch.

Making a Compost Pile

The best times to make a new compost pile is in the spring or in the fall, as the heat of the summer or the cold in winter will not slow down the decomposition process. A good-sized pile will most likely take from three to six months to decompose into good compost. The final result should be a rich, dark-colored material that smells earthy and easily crumbles in your hands.

To make your compost pile:

  • Lay down 4 to 6 inches of carbon material—for example, straw, shredded or dried leaves, small sticks, corn or broccoli stalks (chopped into smaller pieces or put through a chipping machine, if possible).

  • Cover that with 4 to 6 inches of green material—for example, leaves, grass, and kitchen waste.

  • Add in a handful of organic fertilizer lime if you want.

  • Then cover with a thin layer of soil or animal manure to keep the flies and odor down.

  • Repeat the above steps.

For best results, make the pile at least 3 feet high by 3 feet wide before leaving it to sit. Temperature is an important factor in making compost; the larger the pile, the easier it is for the material in it to get to the high temperatures needed to kill any weed seeds or diseased plant material. A temperature that is either too low or too high can slow down the decomposition process, while warm weather has a tendency to speed it up a bit. The pile usually starts out cool, and then as the materials start to decompose, the temperature inside the pile increases. Once your compost pile has reached approximately 3 feet by 3 feet, let that one sit and start a new pile. Most plastic compost bins will be approximately this size when they are full so you can move the bin, leaving the pile to work, or have two bins if you have a large amount of debris.

When making compost, you want to have a balance of green and brown material. Too much green material will attract flies and give your compost a strong odor; too much brown material will slow down the decomposition of the pile.

Moisture is another important aspect to consider when making compost. The amount of moisture needs to be high, so make sure you add water to your compost regularly. Never let your compost pile dry out, especially in the summer months. Keeping the pile covered will keep the sun from drying it out as well as preventing the rain from making it too wet. Here's a way to check to see if your pile has the proper amount of moisture. Take a handful of compost from the middle of the pile, and if it is crumbling and slightly moist to the touch, there is enough moisture. If it forms a hard ball, the pile is too wet.

The moisture in the pile will allow air, which is also needed in the decomposing process, to filter in. Turning your pile will also allow more air circulation, and is especially important if your pile is too wet. A lot of gardeners never turn their compost and that method does work; however, taking the time to turn your pile over regularly will hasten the decomposition process.

Choosing a Compost Bin

Constructing your own bin rather than purchasing one can save you money, as you can use recycled materials. Another benefit is that you can make it any size to fit your needs. A simple compost structure is a three-sided bin made by stacking concrete blocks, railroad ties, wooden boards, bales of straw, or pallets. Wire fencing or wire mesh can also be used to make a less solid bin so long as the holes are small enough to hold the materials you have. Bending the wire into a circular shape is often the easiest and the sturdiest shape to set up. Often, you can get these materials for free; they are also fairly inexpensive to purchase. Make sure the walls are about 4 feet high and the area inside is a minimum of 3 feet by 3 feet.

What, exactly, is topdressing?

Top dressing is a nutritious application of organic materials such as leaf mold, well-rotted manures, and compost that is spread on the surface of the soil or around the base of a plant. You can do this either in the ground or in a container.

There are many different types of plastic compost bins on the market; they are compact, and great for a tiny space. Plastic bins are lighter to move around, can last longer than wooden bins, and are enclosed so they can protect your compost from the rain and sun. They come in round shapes, square shapes, solid-sided containers, tumblers, and ones with removable and stackable sides. Most have a capacity of 12 cubic feet, which is the size needed for your compost to heat up. They are a great addition to any small-space garden!

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