Composting is now widely recognized as an excellent way to improve your garden soil and plant health quickly and naturally. Unfortunately, many gardeners suffer from the impression that composting is complicated. A perusal of most gardening books suggests that compost requires constant turning and monitoring of temperature and moisture to turn out well.

But composting does not have to be this difficult! There are many methods out there for managing a pile with little trouble. Here’s where you can find the answers to your questions and concerns.


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A Step-by-Step Guide to Composting

Step 1: Set Up a Compost Bin

While you technically don’t need a compost bin to compost, using a bin keeps everything tidy and breaking down evenly. You can use a purchased bin, or you can make one yourself quite simply. Some gardeners make compost bins out of pallets. Another alternative is to use chicken wire and a few fence posts. For most home applications, a two-bin composter with each bin measuring 3x3x3 feet will be sufficient. If you make a lot of compost, perhaps for market gardening, each bin can be 4x4x4, but no bigger or the materials will not break down efficiently. You can also add a third bin if you want a separate place to build a new pile while the first one is in process, or perhaps for curing finished compost.

Read more: How to Build a Two-Bin Composter »

Step 2: Collect and Chop Materials

Once you have a place to put your compost, you’re ready to start making it. Any plant-derived organic matter that does not contain pathogens or weed seeds will suffice. Excellent materials for composting include straw, shredded leaves, chopped tree branches, grass clippings, and vegetable peelings. Do not add diseased plants, weeds that have gone to seed, or any type of animal product (it will smell terrible and attract raccoons).

Coarsely chop the materials as you add them to the pile for faster composting. You can also build your compost pile with alternating layers of fresh, green materials high in nitrogen and coarse, brown materials high in carbon for faster, more even results, but this is not essential. You should, however, intersperse wet materials that tend to clump together with coarse, dry materials, as this will prevent smelly anaerobic decay from taking over the pile. Also remember that you want your pile to be 3x3x3 or 4x4x4 feet for best results.

Read more: C:N Ratios of Common Organic Materials »

Step 3: Add a Starter

To get things going, you will need a starter, which contains the microorganisms responsible for initiating and maintaining the whole composting process. You can purchase organic compost starters, but if you have access to used bedding from livestock raised organically or to healthy soil that has never been treated with chemicals, that is a cheaper option. If you opt to use a purchased starter, follow the manufacturer’s directions. For used animal bedding, just add two to three inches to the top of the pile. With soil, add enough that your compost is made up of about 10% soil by volume (you don’t have to be exact).

Read more: Pros and Cons of Deep-Litter Bedding »

Step 4: Turn and Moisten the Pile

You can walk away now if you want to, but to get things off to a good start it’s best to turn the pile once, using a garden hose to mist everything just until moist as you work. You will need to repeat the turning and misting periodically throughout the process to keep all the ingredients decomposing evenly. How often is up to you. The more frequently you turn the pile, the faster it will decompose. Turning the pile every week can result in finished compost in as little as a month, provided you have enough high-nitrogen material. Turning the pile once a month may cause the process to take a whole growing season.

Read more: Pros and Cons of Cold Composting »

Step 5: Apply Your Finished Compost

Finished compost looks more or less like coarse cake crumbs, with little sign of the original constituent ingredients. At this point, compost that was made slowly can be applied to the garden right away. Compost that reached high temperatures during the process should be given a month or two to cure so that beneficial microorganisms can move back in.

Applying compost is quite simple—just spread it evenly over the garden beds, on top of the soil but below the mulch. If you don’t have enough compost to cover the whole garden area, you may want to prioritize beds with poor soil structure or plants that are heavy feeders, like corn, tomatoes, peppers, melons, and cole crops.

Read more: The Complete Compost Gardening Guide »


Improving Your Garden Soil: 10 Steps to Healthy Plants and Nutrient-Rich Food

Improving Your Garden Soil

by Michelle Lindsey

Healthy, nutrient-rich food starts with vibrant soil. You can build that vibrant soil in your backyard in 10 steps. Improving Your Garden Soil will help you create a customized soil improvement plan. Learn more »

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