Composting Made Simple

Barbara Mrgich
Adams County Master Gardener

Compost is a gardener's solution to just about any soil problem. The definition of compost is simply, "A decayed mixture of organic material that is used to improve the soil in a garden." For myself, I just wouldn't know how to garden without it.

The most common basic ingredients for us home gardeners are garden cuttings, leaves, pine needles, kitchen garbage, grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, and animal manure from herbivores such as horses, cattle, sheep, chickens; never add dog or cat manure. NEVER USE MEAT PRODUCTS, GREASE OR SCRAPS. Anytime you dump a spent plant from a planter containing old potting mix, whether inside or out, put it right on the compost pile. The only exception would be if the plant material is diseased.

Materials in the compost decompose when tiny organisms in the soil begin their work of eating and digesting the raw materials causing the pile to heat up and " cook". While working, these microorganisms are producing the carbon dioxide the plants need to grow. In order to do their work, they need water and oxygen. They also need a balance between nitrogen and carbon. In general, the green-colored additions to your pile are the nitrogen, and the brown is the carbon, but like all rules, there are exceptions. For instance, both coffee grounds and animal manure are considered "green" because they are each high in nitrogen.

You want to turn or stir your pile to allow air to circulate, you want to keep it moist, but never drenched, and you want to layer and mix the brown with the green. A big pile of green grass clippings will just lay there and stink. A big pile of brown leaves will stay whole and crisp for a long time. Mix them together, and they will quickly decompose into a valuable soil additive.

The best way to make compost is to gather all your raw materials together, then build the pile all at once layering the green with the brown keeping in mind that you need considerably more carbon than nitrogen. Using this method will get your pile to heat up sufficiently to kill unwanted seeds.

Even though the best way is to layer, measure, and mix, it is possible to simply throw all your garden waste in a big pile and leave it alone. It will eventually decompose and become compost. The mixing and measuring simply speed up the process. The contrast between the two methods tells you that you can't go too far wrong.

My compromise is to use two open cedar bins side by side. I dump the raw materials into one bin as they become available, then immediately cover them with some unfinished compost from the second bin. (Never leave kitchen scraps uncovered as they tend to attract unwanted night visitors.) As I cover the fresh additions each day, I am slowly turning the pile. I continue until the first bin is completely empty, then reverse the process. I NEVER add weeds that have gone to seed, or the seed heads of the many self-seeding plants that I grow in my garden.

During the summer, when leaves are not readily available, the bulk of the new additions tend to be green, so the question becomes, where to get the brown? Shredded black print newspapers, straw and ground up corn stalks are some good carbon additions. Using the unfinished compost to cover the fresh additions seems to be the key for me as that unfinished compost is brimming full of the microorganisms needed to break down the new additions.

Many of my neighbors rake leaves in the fall and put them into trash bags for disposal. I often collect these bags and store them under my deck to use throughout the summer.

Mowed grass is both a blessing and a curse to the compost pile. Nothing heats up my compost faster than freshly-mowed grass, but too much stagnates the pile. Therefore, we spread it on in a thin layer and cover it with brown material. A very simplified measuring stick offered by Lee Reich, soil scientist and contributing editor to Fine Gardening Magazine, is this: if your pile doesn't heat up, it needs more nitrogen. If it stinks, it needs more carbon. How simple is that?

A final concept to understand about composting is that the smaller and softer the pieces, the quicker they will decompose. A shredder is a great help for chopping the components so they will digest quicker. If you don't own one, using your clippers to cut up pieces of garden waste will help speed things along. Use only healthy plants, discard anything that is diseased.

Compost is the ultimate recycler. Reusing the cuttings that come from your soil returns nutrients to your garden. The more waste products you compost, the less you are sending off to our landfills. The more compost you make, the less commercial fertilizer you will need to purchase.

Read other articles on gardening techniques

Read other articles by Barbara Mrgich