When my grandmother was gardening, she had the most amazing roses. I don’t even know what types they were, but the thick bushes were always filled with beautiful, fragrant blooms. She had vases full of roses in the house all summer. Her secret? She would “feed” the roses. She would dump coffee grounds, egg shells, even banana peels into the dirt, work it under the soil so it wasn’t unsightly or stinky, and over time, the “food” would break down for the roses. And, while my grandmother never used the term “compost” or probably even knew what it was, she certainly knew about feeding the soil.
For those of you who have been gardening for a while, compost is probably old hat. But if you aren’t currently composting, or haven’t heard much about it, let me make a suggestion…as Nike would say, Just Do It! Compost is basically organic matter that decomposes into rich fertilizer. As I tell my niece and nephews, you’re take trash and making dirt (or dirt food) out of it. The added bonus is that you’re recycling a lot of your kitchen and garden waste, cutting down on actual trash that makes it to a landfill somewhere. Also, it is easy to do if you have a spot in your yard for a pile.
Many years ago, when I was in college, I built my first compost pile. I was so excited, I did tons of research. I read about the right proportions and what should be included. I built a “pen” out of old wooden skids and filled it with the right mix of nitrogen rich green matter and carbon rich brown matter (suggestions are 1/3 green to 2/3 brown, but I don’t really follow that these days). I added earth worms and shredded newspapers. I watered the pile and turned it often. It was perfect. I can remember one cold September evening that first year when I could see the steam coming off of the pile, knowing that mother nature was hard at work, working her magic. Then, one of my neighbors thought it was just a junk pile and dumped loads and loads of grass clippings into my pile. It ruined my perfect balance, and, while I tried to clean it out and save my hard work, my enthusiasm was crushed. I took apart the pile the following year and that was it.
While my first attempt was a bit OCD, several years ago I created another compost heap. With this go around, I have become much more lax, and much more successful. The first thing I did this time around was create two piles side by side. My thought was that the one pile could be for dumping “new” material while the other pile was decomposing the “old” material. I used inexpensive metal fence panels to create the walls of my compost pile. As I mentioned before, I had used wooden pallets in the past, but the wood started to decompose as well, so metal seemed like a better choice. Each panel is 36 inches wide and 42 inches tall. And because the panels are open, there is a lot of air flow, which also is good for compost. Because I was using the fence panels, I needed 5. I left the front side for each pile open, so it was easier to turn the piles periodically, and they share the middle panel.
Once I had my structure built, I was ready to start adding to it. For a compost pile, you can add almost any organic material, with a few exceptions. First, be careful with weeds. If the weeds went to seed, then they could spread those seeds in your compost, basically meaning you’re planting seeds as you spread the compost out. And do not include clippings of diseased plants. Again, this could just pass the disease to other healthy plants when using the compost. Also, don’t add any kind of animal products from the kitchen. You can add egg shells, and they are great for compost, but don’t add any meat or vegetables that are cooked with meat. This will only attract animals to your pile. For the most part, that’s about it. Everything else is pretty fair game.
I add all of my clippings and deadheading. As I mentioned when I was cleaning out the garden, I also add all of the leaves and debris I clean out of the garden in the spring. Most of this already has started decomposing, so it works perfectly. I add any soil I’m getting rid of that was in pots from the year before (with the dead plant, why not). My sister is a big fan of campfires, so I also add in the ashes she has after her big bonfires. And I do add weeds. especially the young ones that I pull in the spring.
As far as the kitchen, I always have a bowl on my counter that I use for compost waste. I know there are fancy things you can buy, but I just use a bowl. I wait till it fills up, or starts to smell, whichever comes first, and then take it out and dump it on the pile. I add egg shells, vegetables, fruits, banana peels, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, and even used paper towels (if just wet). Most of the materials end up drying out a bit, so the bowl rarely smells…I usually just dump it when it’s full.
Once you start building up the pile, just turn it every few weeks or so to get air in it and get things moving. As I mentioned earlier, throughout the spring and summer, I like to add to 1 pile, then the other is the one from the year before that may have some compost at the bottom, or may just need to sit longer. You also want to make sure it stays moist, but I’ve found that summer rainstorms work pretty well for that. After a while, you’ll notice that everything starts to break down and you’re left with a rich soil. Use it wherever you feel your flowers, fruits, or vegetables need some extra nutrients. I’ve been spreading mine on the vegetable garden before I till the soil, and it’s worked out really well. I also add some to the hole when I’m planting any new trees or shrubs. But wherever you use the compost, you’ll be rewarded.
And, if we’re being honest, back to the turning and watering, I’ve gone months where I’ve been busy and have completely forgotten to turn or water the pile, and it still works out great. I’ve essentially ignored it, but I’m still rewarded. The biggest difference is speed. The more you turn it and take care of it, the faster you end up with compost. However, I’m a patient person! 🙂