We Have The Secret to a Gorgeous Garden
With Scientific Precision or a Free-Form Approach, We All Can Make Our Own Dirt
Q: I like the idea of composting — using kitchen and yard scraps to improve the soil while reducing the waste stream from my home — but I really have no idea how to get started. I read some articles online that made me wonder whether I have the time and space, much less the scientific knowledge, to devote to composting. Is composting as complicated as it sounds, or is there an easier way?
A: While composting can be complicated, it doesn’t have to be. You can be precise about the size of your compost pile and make it
3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, creating 3- to 4-inch layers of nitrogen-heavy organic material alternating with carbon-heavy materials, giving it just the right amount of water to keep it moist but not soggy and turning it at prescribed intervals to keep it “cooking.”
Or you can toss your kitchen and yard waste into a pile and pretty much ignore it. Both piles will decompose eventually and create compost. The only difference is how long it will take.
When I first attempted composting many years ago, a well-meaning but persnickety neighbor told me I was doing it all wrong — that my pile wasn’t big enough to generate the required heat for composting and my green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) layers were of unequal sizes, further thwarting the process. He made composting sound as complex as rocket science, and I decided that I had taken on more than I could handle and abandoned my composting project.
I walked away and didn’t check it again for several months, which was when I discovered that my old “substandard” pile of eggs shells, vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, grass clippings and leaves was in the process of rotting quite nicely. I have to admit I felt vindicated, but the bigger lesson I learned was that while chemistry-class composting might be the ideal, less formulaic efforts should also be encouraged. Every little bit helps, as long as you follow one basic rule: Plant material only — no meat and no fats, or you’ll create a rancid odor and attract all sorts of unwanted visitors to your compost pile.
Your pile will create compost faster if you have a good mix of “green” material, nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings and vegetable trimmings, and “brown” material, such as fallen leaves, sawdust and soil. They can be mixed together or separated into layers, but the key is to have both. If you have only one or the other, the pile will still rot, but it will take a lot longer. If you’re not in a hurry, it doesn’t matter.
You can also use manure as a “brown” material, but make sure it’s from livestock such as cows, horses, goats, sheep, pigs or chickens, which eat grains and vegetables. Avoid dog and cat feces. Because they eat meat, their waste is not suitable for use as fertilizer or compost material.
You can confine your compost in any number of structures — including a bin made of wooden pallets, a circle of hardware cloth or chicken wire, a commercial compost bin or tumbler, or a 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage — but it will decompose faster if it’s enclosed. It also decomposes faster if the material is in smaller pieces, no larger than 2 or 3 inches, and the pile is kept moist. The bacterial and fungal activity within the pile creates heat, and stirring the pile every couple of days keeps the bacteria and fungi fed and the pile hot, so the material breaks down faster. It’s ready to use when it has a loose, crumbly texture like soil and an earthy smell.