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Making Rich, Clean Compost

Simple Composting Concepts and Considerations

Seasoned gardeners often refer to compost as “black gold” because the value of good quality compost is huge. Wherever you live, compost can improve your soil, and make your gardening and landscaping more successful, naturally.

Homemade compost:

  • Keeps kitchen scraps and fall leaves out of landfills
  • Provides organic nutrients and beneficial organisms to your landscape
  • Improves soil texture, helping mitigate too much clay or sand
  • Helps soil hold moisture so less watering is needed
  • Used as a mulch, it suppresses weed seed germination

In this country, commercially sold compost is unregulated. The material in the bags sold by local retailers varies by producer, region and season. The best way to know what’s really in the blend you’re using is to make the compost yourself.

Decomposition of organic materials will happen without your help. The goal of most home compost makers is to improve efficiency to hasten the process. Here are some basics for making compost.

Find a Good “Cook” Site

The ideal compost making site will get some direct sun, about a half day. This helps heat up the material for greater microbial action and faster decomposition.  Full day sun tends to dry out the compost, making it harder to maintain moisture levels in the optimum range. Dry microbes are inactive microbes. For this reason, it’s best to avoid sites that are under overhangs and therefore don’t benefit from rains. Full shade often results in compost that does decompose, but very slowly.  Try to site your compost making operations close enough to your kitchen that adding materials regularly is convenient.

Before determining your compost site, it’s also a good idea to check to see if your community has any regulations about where bins or piles may be placed.

Corral That Compost

You can make compost by just piling up material, but for gardeners who want speedy results, have limited space or a sense of esthetics, a bin or composter is often a preferable choice.  Select a bin based on size and design, or make your own. Considerations include:

  • Capacity – 4 cubic feet square is ideal; this is a great size for the critical mass needed for good heat development. A little bigger or smaller is fine, too. Enclosed bins are smaller and still heat well due to dark exteriors and careful design.
  • Ventilation – moderate air flow to compost material surfaces is needed for those beneficial organisms that breathe and for good decomposition.
  • Ease of Mixing – turning materials to mix and move into the hotter center portion of the pile results in faster decomposition. Evaluate composter options with ease of turning in mind.

Colorful Layers

For best results, layer compost made with yard waste and kitchen scraps, an inch or two of “brown” material and then about twice as much “green”.  Add a little soil, too. The brown category includes dried leaves, coffee filters, egg shells, dried grass clippings, peanut hulls, corn cobs, shredded paper and paper towels, and hay or straw – basically natural material with some structure and not much moisture. These supply carbon. The green materials are things like fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, coffee grounds, weeds without mature seeds, fresh leaves and freshly cut grass clippings. These add nitrogen to the mix. The soil introduces the beneficial microbes, the busy little critters that do most of the real work that eventually makes compost.  If you’ve used lots of inorganic fertilizers on your soil over time, many of the microbes may have been killed.  Compost starter, another source of microbes, is a good option in this case.

Avoid the Following Compost Ingredients

There are some things that aren’t good to add to your compost pile. These include:

  • Meat scraps, bones, fats and dairy products – these will rot and draw scavengers.
  • Citrus peels which are irritating to some kinds of earthworms
  • Diseased plants as these can spread the disease through the finished compost. Even cooked compost usually doesn’t get hot enough to kill all disease vectors.
  • Chemically treated plants as the chemicals may not break down and will be incorporated into the finished compost.  Natural treatments are no problem.
  • Pet feces as these can draw vermin and contaminate the compost


The ideal moisture for efficient compost making is similar to that of a well wrung out sponge, moist but not wet.  To check, pick up a handful of compost and squeeze tightly; just one or two drops of water should drip out.  If so, you’ve got the moisture levels just right!

Tips for Success

  • Smaller ingredient pieces have more surface area and therefore decompose faster. To speed the process, chop materials into 1-2” sections before adding to your pile or bin.
  • In dry areas, use an old tarp (ripped is fine) to cover the pile to help retain moisture
  • Turn your compost pile weekly to mix the materials and add oxygen
  • Toss in a handful of soil when you add new materials; this increases the number of beneficial microbes

Ready to start making rich compost for your garden?  Good!  Before diving into the project, it’s often a good idea to touch base with your local cooperative extension office for suggestions and tips tailored to your part of the country.  The experts there have years of experience with local conditions and can usually provide written reference guides and online sources of helpful information about making compost.

1/3/2014    Gardening Know-How, Soil & Compost: It All Starts Here