Gardeners often regard rich, dark compost as an almost magical elixir that multiplies their soil’s nutrients and enhances its water-retaining abilities. The resulting healthier plants are quite adept at fighting off common plant diseases that might decimate more nutrient-starved plants. While some gardeners follow specific composting instructions, you can still cultivate a good batch of compost by slightly relaxing the rules.
Gardeners often toss vegetable and fruit scraps into a kitchen compost container, and later empty these raw materials into a larger bin for active composting. Leaves, chemical-free grass clippings, hay, and small cardboard pieces also make great compost ingredients. Toss in a few good helpings of animal manure; include droppings from cattle, horses, chickens, goats, and rabbits. Don’t, however, throw in treated wood sawdust or wood chips; and avoid sugar-loaded, salty, or fatty foods. Avoid meat remnants, along with manure from humans, dogs, and cats.
Let the Pile Begin
While some gardeners prefer commercial compost bins, you can also get good results with a homemade circular compost pile. Make your pile 3 to 4 feet in diameter, and contain it with plastic garden fencing or welded wire. Spread a 4-inch layer of coarse plant material on the bottom. Add dead plants, vegetable and fruit scraps, chopped-up leaves, and grass clippings. Spray your pile with water to keep it moist, but don’t allow the pile to become soggy. A moist, nicely layered pile, ideally 3 feet in height and width, should start heating up and decomposing in a few days. When your pile develops an earthy perfume, you’ve reached the perfect balance of dry materials and moisture.
Turning Your Compost
As your compost materials break down, they’ll shrink in volume, allowing beneficial air to mix in and speed the process along. Turning your compost with a sturdy fork, and adding water as needed, helps to blend your compost materials. Well-mixed materials break down into smaller pieces more quickly, allowing you to achieve rich, dark brown compost faster than you think. Once your compost is ripe for the garden, keep your pile covered so rain doesn’t drain out your compost nutrients.
Since composting is an inexact science, your compost piles won’t always turn out exactly as planned. Perhaps your compost pile’s odor nearly makes you pass out, which means you’ve probably added too much green material or water. To fix the problem, add some extra dry material, or turn your compost to blend in some air. Maybe a huge group of maggots has taken up residence in your compost pile, likely the result of accessible fruit and vegetable scraps the tiny critters couldn’t resist. Cover your kitchen scraps to greatly reduce these fly larvae infestations. Finally, a too-dry compost pile will attract colonies of industrious ants. Hose down the pile with water; and cover it with grass clippings, straw, or cloth that helps your compost stay moist. Wait for your compost pile to balance itself and begin cranking out that rich garden gold.