Garden Gold: How to Make Compost for a Garden
Any soil can benefit from adding organic matter. To learn more about transforming bad soils to good and making good soils even better read on for a practical guide to making garden compost.
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The key to a great garden is great soil. Some people are blessed with great soil. My parents live in a river valley and have gorgeous soil. My husband and I bought our house shortly before we got married and I quickly realized that we have, at best, clay soil and at worst, rocky, clay, backfill masquerading as soil. I knew that in order to have the kind of garden I wanted I was going to need to concentrate on soil amendment to turn my clay soil into something a bit more plant friendly.
Organic Matter is Magic
Amending your soil is a topic that many people find quite intimidating. The idea of soil tests and soil analysis and adding a bunch of different stuff just sounds difficult. While some soils would certainly benefit from an in-depth analysis, the truth is you can make any soil better by adding organic matter.
Whether you are trying to change not-so-good soil into great soil or are maintaining good soil as good soil, it can actually be pretty easy. Simply incorporate organic matter or compost.
Consider organic matter the magic elixir that can fix what ails your garden. Are there some soils that need more drastic measures than compost? Yes. However, all soils will benefit from compost and additional amendments can be added later if necessary.
How I Started Composting in My Garden
Making compost is one of those things that seems daunting. For my birthday the first year my husband and I had our house, my dad and brother built me a compost bin. I stood there staring at my brand-new compost bins with random bits of information floating around in my head. Green to brown ratios. Getting the compost pile hot enough. Turning the pile over often. On and on. I have to admit I was a bit paralyzed by the thought of doing this wrong.
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As with many things, there is the most efficient, quickest way to do something and then there's the slower, good enough way. I decided to start out pretty basic and figured as I got more confident I could make my composting operation more efficient if I decided I wanted to. I am going to talk you through setting up a simple compost system.
Setting up a Simple Compost System
Choose a spot to put your compost bin.
It is best to choose a sunny spot to maximize the speed of the breakdown of the compost. However, a shady spot will work as well. There is a myriad of ways to build compost bins. You will probably want to have a two-bin system, which is what my dad built for me. As you can tell my compost bin is not in the sun. My husband required that the bin not be visible from the house or the driveway which meant I had to hide it in the woods. Is it less than ideal? Yes. Does it still work? Absolutely.
Build your compost bin.
My bins are built of wood, however, you can use many different materials to build a compost bin. Chicken wire, brick, railroad ties, anything that creates a place to put plant material and kitchen scraps will work as a compost bin. If you aren't handy, and your dad doesn't want to give you a compost bin for your birthday, you can also buy compost bins. Many of the bought bins are self contained and easy to handle. Having a two-bin system is key because it allows you to have one bin that has finished compost (the left bin in the left photo above) and the other that has material that hasn't decomposed as much (the bin on the right in the left photo above).
Filling and Managing Your Compost Bin
Once you have your bin bought or built it is time to start putting material into the bin. Choose one side and start throwing waste in.
What can be composted?
You can compost things like:
- Your weeds (as long as they aren't seeding)
- Grass clippings (it's really best to use a mulching mower and leave the grass on your lawn)
- Fallen leaves
- Kitchen scraps (except meat-based scraps which can attract animals)
- Old potting soil from when you clean out your pots
- Shredded paper
It is perfectly acceptable to just kind of toss everything into the bin, willy-nilly.
Things not to add to the bin include:
- Meat scraps
- Diseased plants
- Weeds with seeds
If you are doing a "proper" job of composting your compost pile will heat up enough to kill weed seeds. The way I'm doing it, I'm not so sure that is happening so to be on the safe side I don't put weeds that have gone to seed in the bin.
How often to turn compost
As you gradually add plant material to your bin the older material will start to decompose. It is best to turn your compost pile every few weeks, although less often will still get the job done. Turning a compost pile is exactly what it sounds like. You turn the material over to mix the top material under to allow it to decompose faster. I use a pitchfork to turn mine, and after spotting the rattlesnake-look-alike hanging out near my bin, I no longer do it wearing flip-flops.
Many compost bins that are available for sale allow you to turn your pile by using a lever rather than a pitchfork, easier and less messy. I have to admit it is sometimes months rather than weeks between turns for my compost pile.
Once you have one side pretty full or you are starting to get a good amount of decomposition on the first side, start tossing your new material in the second side. This will allow the first side to finish decomposition and allow you to start using your compost to amend the soil in your garden. I usually make the decision to stop adding plant material to one side and switch to the other when I go out to turn my compost pile.
Since I tend to turn my pile infrequently the top layer of plant material is usually mostly intact. I will often toss this newer material into the empty side of my compost bin and then turn the rest of the material, moving the material that is ready to use to the front of the bin and leaving the half-ready material in the back of the bin to finish composting. This allows me to start using the finished material while letting the rest finish composting. Once I have a layer of new material in the "empty" side I will usually add a couple of shovel or fork-fulls of finished compost to the new material, this helps jump-start the composting process.
How Long Does it Take to Make Compost?
How long does it take to turn plant material into compost using my decidedly low-tech and somewhat haphazard process? If I fill the compost bin in spring the compost is usually ready by fall. If I fill the compost bin through the summer it is usually useable by spring.
Related: Learn how to incorporate compost into your flower beds.
When my bin was brand new I put sweet corn stalks into the bottom of the bin, I didn't even chop them into smaller pieces, I put the stalks in whole. Afterward, I worried that I should have chopped them up a bit but decided, oh well let's see what happens. They were the first thing in the bin when I added them in July. By spring they were fully composted and ready to use. I have to say I was a little amazed.
Will I get more scientific about my composting in the future? Maybe, but probably not. I can get good compost for use in spring and fall and have enough available that I can grab some for summer use too. I am happy with what I'm getting.
I spent the first two years hauling wheelbarrows full of compost to add to the soil in my vegetable garden, first using the compost my dad brought me from the town composting area and then starting in on the compost I made myself. After two years I can see the improvement in the soil in the vegetable garden. This year I am tackling the flower beds in front of the porch and any leftovers will get added to the veggie garden. My garden gold will take that backfill "soil" and make it something my plants will actually like. It might take me a few years to get it there but I have faith I'll make progress.
For additional information read Making Quick Compost: The Advanced Guide to Garden Gold.
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