Across the planet earth an amazing process is continuously taking place. Plant parts and animal leavings rot or decompose with the help of fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Earthworms and an assortment of insects do their part digesting and mixing the plant and animal matter together. The result is a marvelous, rich, and crumbly layer of organic matter we call compost, which is nature's gift to the gardener.

Benefits of Compost

Compost encourages earthworms and other beneficial organisms whose activities help plants grow strong and healthy. It provides nutrients and improves the soil. Wet clay soils drain better and sandy soils hold more moisture if amended with compost. A compost pile keeps organic matter handy for garden use and, as an added advantage, keeps the material from filling up overburdened landfills.

How to Make Compost

Start with a layer of chopped leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste like banana peels, eggshells, old lettuce leaves, apple cores, coffee grounds, and whatever else is available. Keep adding materials until you have a six-inch layer, then cover it with three to six inches of soil, manure, or finished compost.

Alternate layers of organic matter and layers of soil or manure until the pile is about three feet tall. A pile that is three feet tall by three feet square will generate enough heat during decomposition to sterilize the compost. This makes it useful as a potting soil, topdressing for lawns, or soil-improving additive.

Your compost pile may benefit from a compost activator. Activators get the pile working, and speed the process. Alfalfa meal, barnyard manure, bonemeal, cottonseed meal, blood meal, and good rich compost from a finished pile are all good activators. Each time you add a layer to your pile, sprinkle on some activator and water well.

Compost Care

Keep the pile in a semi-shaded area to keep it from drying out too much. If your pile is near a tree, turn it frequently to make sure the tree roots don't grow into it. Make an indentation in the top to hold water and sprinkle with a garden hose when it appears dry. Keep it moist, but not wet. Beneficial organisms cannot survive in soggy conditions.

Turning a compost pile is great exercise, but it can be quite a chore for those of us that aren't used to heavy labor. Mixing the pile is a lot easier if you use a compost aerating tool. If your compost pile has a strong odor, try turning it more often. Odors are often caused by poor air circulation or a pile that is too tightly packed.

Using Compost

When your compost is ready, it can be mixed into the soil before planting or applied to the surface of the soil as a mulch. It's best to use it as soon as it is ready because the longer it sits, the fewer nutrients it will contain.

Quick Compost

If you need compost in a hurry, speed up the process by turning the pile with a pitchfork once a week. Mixing the compost allows oxygen into the center of the pile, where it encourages the growth of bacteria and fungi. A pile that is turned regularly will become finished compost in four to eight months. Fresh manure will activate the pile, causing it do decompose more quickly. Lime and fresh manure counteract each other, so it's best not to use both in you compost pile.

Particle size has a lot to do with the speed of decomposition. If you don't have a shredder for your leaves and small twigs, try running the lawn mower over them before you add them to the pile.

Making a Compost Bin

Many types of compost bins are available at your local garden center. Some of these have devices for turning and removing compost. Although these bins make turning easier and are more convenient, they aren't necessary. An enclosure made from chicken wire or five wood pallets (one for the bottom and one for each side) does the job just as well.

What to Compost

  • kitchen waste
  • lawn clippings (use thin layers so they don't mat down)
  • chopped leaves (large leaves take a long time to break down)
  • shredded branches
  • garden plants (use disease-free plants)
  • shredded paper
  • weeds (before they go to seed)
  • straw or hay
  • newspaper
  • wood ash (sprinkle lightly between layers)
  • hay
  • tea leaves and coffee grounds

What Not to Compost

  • Meat scraps and fatty trash
  • excessive wood ashes (counteracts with manures)
  • sawdust generally slows the decomposition of the pile
  • Troubleshooting Guide

Troubleshooting Guide

Unpleasant odor Too much nitrogen Add high carbon material such as straw, pine needles, grass clippings or vegetable trimmings and aerate.
Compaction Aerate.
Overwatering Add dry leaves or wood chips to soak up water and aerate.
Pile not heating up Lack of nitrogen Add a nitrogen source such as fresh manure, grass clippings or blood meal. Mix the pile.
Pile needs to be turned Mix pile by bringing outside material to the center.
Low moisture When watering make sure the moisture gets to the center of the pile. Try poking deep holes in the pile before watering.
Compost is finished Finished compost smells earthy rather than rotten or moldy and is dark and crumbly.
Compost is damp and only the center is warm Pile is too small Add more compost material.

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