In the heat and cool of late spring, our gardens soon become jungles. As you weed, snip, and snack, collections for your home compost are also building.
If you are new to backyard composting, spring is a great time to start! Composting happens naturally, as nature’s way of returning the nutrients to the soil. With a few handy skills, you can make compost happen a little faster than nature’s pace, and right in time to amend your garden beds for fall.
Skill 1: Build your compost critter salad
Think of your compost pile like putting together a dinner salad. Begin your heap with a mix of traditional yard waste, grass clippings, twigs, some weeds, and prunings. I like to start with a minimum of a cubic yard sized pile, because it takes less sweat equity to manage and speeds up the composting process. Be sure to set up your heap somewhere near a water source, and one that is easy to access by wheelbarrow.
A mixture of both green and brown materials are essential to fire up the chemical reaction of decay. By mixing the two, you invite millions of microorganisms, soil insects, bacteria and healthy fungi to join in on something of a Salsa ‘dance off’ in your compost pile.
Their munching and moving creates heat and in turn, a faster, useable finished compost. Color is not the only characteristic that differentiates a “green” material from a “brown” one.
Green materials tend to be moist and colorful, while browns tend to be dry and colorless. Mix them in a 3:1 ratio, where you combine three handfuls of browns for every one handful of greens to cook up a balanced food source for the soil critters.
Gathering materials from your garden in the form of “greens” and “browns” may look something like this:
Greens: Weeds, grass clippings, twiggy prunings, leaves, dead-headed flowers, coffee grounds and loose leaf tea.
Browns: Shredded paper (newspaper or office shreddings), straw, dryer lint, cardboard, wood chips, leafless twigs and sticks/
While building your compost heap can be fun, make sure you leave it free of the following:
• Grass clippings treated with chemical lawn fertilizers.
• Diseased plant trimmings.
• Large clods of dirt or sod (too difficult to turn with a pitchfork).
• Invasive weeds.
• Dog and cat manures.
n Food scraps from the kitchen. While valuable for composting, food scraps are best placed in closed composting systems. Added to open-air compost pile like these ones, rodents love the chance to nap, nest and graze in what probably feels like a jackpot of delicious treats.
Skill 2: Toss your compost critter salad
The same compost critters that love munching your green and brown compost mixture also love having adequate amounts of moisture and oxygen.
Once your compost pile has reached a cubic yard in size, pull out your pitchfork and turn the pile over once every 7-10 days.
Turning your compost increases airflow, speeds up decomposition, and creates variance for the diets of the compost critters.
When it comes to backyard composting, there is no such thing as too much turning. Extra oxygenation brings relief to a pile that is not heating up (60 degrees Fahrenheit or below) or too hot (above 160 degrees Fahrenheit).
Skill 3: Dress your compost critter salad (with water)
A dry pile is a lifeless pile, or at maximum, very slow to decay. A moisture balance that feels like a wrung out sponge or a piece of moist chocolate cake is best.
If it feels like your compost is too dry, give it a spray while turning it to incorporate moisture throughout the materials.
On the other side, too much moisture in your compost pile can cause problems. Like skin, soil and compost have pores. The pores in a compost pile are actually small pockets of oxygen.
When oversaturated, those pores fill up, and the oxygen levels drop below what is normal for the helpful compost critters to do their dance of decay.
Worse is that your compost will begin to smell off-putting, which is no fun to brag about to your gardening friends.
Skill 4: Adding extras
There are three essential tools to becoming a great composter:
• A pitchfork.
• A long-wand compost thermometer.
• A machete.
The machete chops materials down to the size soil critters can get at, the pitchfork is the easiest tool to toss with, and a long wand thermometer shows you the heating and cooling trends of your pile.
To kill basic weed seeds like dandelions, it is best if your compost reaches 135 degrees Fahrenheit at least three times before heading into its curing phase.
Curing takes place toward the end of the composting process, when you allow your pile to rest for 4-6 weeks in order to finish decomposing.
Skill 5: Celebrating success
Put on your gloves, grab a pitchfork and a smile, and join in on the miraculous journey to making compost happen. Using composting in your garden offers so many benefits:
• Reduction of waste generation from your house and yard.
• Improved water retention in soils.
• Improved drainage in soils.
• Better physicality of planting soils.
• An overall healthier backyard, naturally.
You can apply compost in many different ways. Mix it into your vegetable garden; use it as a nutrient-rich, weed-suppressing mulch; or sprinkle it across your lawn at the beginning of fall or spring as organic fertilizer.
The options will not let you down. Composting is easy to do, and the health and wealth of your yard and garden will be visible for years to come.