Expert gardeners know that gardening is more than simply planting seeds in dirt and providing water and sunshine. A crucial part of getting food to grow abundantly is to nourish your soil so that it is healthy and fertile. One of the best ways to get better soil is to add compost to it. Compost is a rich, dark material that you can make for free using kitchen and yard scraps and regularly maintaining it.
Of course, many of you know what composting is but have yet to try it because it sounds like a big undertaking or you think you probably don’t have the time for the upkeep. Maybe you just don’t aspire to be an expert gardener but simply a pretty good one. Composting doesn’t have to be time-consuming or lifestyle-altering, and the benefits you will reap from it in your gardening will make you wonder what’s taken you so long to get started.
If you have time for a garden, you probably have time for a compost pile. Here is why every gardener needs to compost:
1. Adding compost to dirt creates nutrient-rich soil, which in turn grows more produce.
2. Compost added to soil increases water retention. This means you don’t have to water as frequently or as much, which makes gardening more efficient.
3. Adding compost increases beneficial microorganisms in your soil, resulting in healthier plants because more good bugs means fewer bad ones.
4. Compost in soil improves soil structure. Soil is softer and more workable, making it easier for plants to root deeply.
5. Composting keeps unnecessary waste out of landfills.
For further convincing, here’s my personal testimonial. When in full bloom, our garden looks like one you might find in Wonderland or Willy Wonka’s back yard. Everything is oversized, richly colored, and pulsing with life. It astonishes me every single year how quickly and effortlessly things seem to grow there. Here’s why: My husband makes it an art form to cultivate soil that is as healthy and fertile as the Garden of Eden by maintaining our compost pile and adding it to our dirt regularly.
How to Get Started
You don’t have to make it a big project to start a compost pile. Simply follow these steps and reap the rewards.
1. Designate a place for your compost pile. Most experts say to start with a 4 by 4 by 4 space so that it is big enough to generate some heat and keep vital processes working. Your compost pile doesn’t have to be enclosed, but it can be, especially if you plan to compost through the winter.
2. Begin saving kitchen scraps, yard waste, newspapers, etc. We keep an old cookie tin outside our door so that whenever we have vegetable scraps to get rid of, we can just toss them in there. When it gets full, we add it to the compost pile. When you add your scraps to the pile, you can mix them in or layer them. Experiment a little and see what works best for you.
The basic mix of an ideal compost pile is about a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. This is achieved by adding both what we call “brown” materials and “green” materials to the pile. Brown materials are materials that contain a lot of carbon. These include dried leaves, dead plants, straw, hay, egg shells, shredded paper, cardboard, small twigs, pine needles, peat moss, and sawdust. Green materials contain more nitrogen and include grass and other green plants, hair, manure, and fruit and vegetable scraps. Many beginning composters worry about having exact amounts of carbon and nitrogen, but it’s not necessary to get hung up on the proportions. Just be sure you are adding both green and brown materials, and you should have what you need.
One word of caution: Make sure any wood added to the pile has not been treated chemically, grass has not been sprayed, and food scraps do not have oil on them. All of these things will be detrimental to a healthy compost pile.
3. Maintain your pile. Your goal with your compost pile is to enable the aerobic decomposition processes to work without stopping, allowing the microorganisms to break down your materials and turn them into compost. You do this by keeping the pile moist, aerated, and full of a good mixture of carbon and nitrogen.
Keep your pile moist but not soggy. Loosely cover it with a tarp or other covering if you live in a very rainy area or if you live in a very hot, dry area. You may need to water it regularly to keep it moist. You want its moisture level to resemble a wrung-out sponge.
Give your pile plenty of air circulation. You can do this by laying down a few layers of bulky materials like wood chips to create air pockets, poking holes in the pile, and turning it regularly, which will all ensure that oxygen reaches the center of the pile. When a compost pile is getting enough oxygen, it is able to decompose efficiently. A few signs that decomposition is happening as it should are that your pile has an earthy, not a stinky, smell and that it is warm to the touch. If your pile feels cold or starts to have a foul smell, the aerobic processes are not happening as they should. You may just need to turn it more frequently, dry it out, or add some more green materials. Usually the more frequently you turn your pile, the quicker it will be ready for use. Some experts will tell you to turn it as much as every few days, and some will say as rarely as once a month. Again, do your own experimenting and see what gives you the most success.
4. Add the completed compost to your garden when it is ready. Work compost into the top six inches of your garden soil to give it the nourishment it needs. How will you know when your compost is ready to be added to the garden? When it looks pretty uniformly dark and crumbly and you can’t see the original ingredients you put into it, it’s a pretty safe bet your compost is ready. You can also seal some in a plastic bag for a day or two and then check to see if it is stinky after that time. If not, it’s ready.
If you are attempting to maintain a compost pile and are having trouble with any aspect of it, you may want to check out this excellent article for troubleshooting help.
Composting may initially seem like more work than you want to devote to your gardening, but once you get started, you will see that it doesn’t take much time, and any work you do will be worth it. With your freshly-made compost added in, your garden will go from a patch of dirt to a wildly productive gardening plot.