Composting basics

Composting is a great idea, and is so easy. You can do it in your basement with worms (in a closed bin, obviously) or outside– even in winter (although the composting process is a bit slower during winter). The key to successful composting is trying to avoid adding too much of any one ingredient (especially grass clippings) and to keep the pile moist.

Starting with the basics- you can either do “freestyle” (sans bin) compost or you can purchase or make a composter. I have done both freestyle and purchased composters and I prefer the purchased black plastic composter. It needs to be placed on the ground (not concrete), and if you, like me, have various vermin, I would suggest you put a screen on the bottom- hardware cloth works well.  Make sure it stands somewhere where it can get a bit of sunlight- the reason they are ugly black plastic, I suspect, is to heat up the pile faster.

I have heard from others that you should use small diameter sticks to start the bottom of your compost pile to assist with aeration. This works, but the sticks won’t break down and when you scoop out your compost, you will have sticks in it. If you put sticks in the bottom, I would suggest that you break them into very small (1 ft long) sticks before adding them. I just use dead rose canes when I start out the new season.

Now you’re finally ready to add materials- you should alternate green and “brown” materials in layers. I don’t adhere to this religiously, but try to add some brown if I’m adding a lot of green, and vice versa. Examples of “brown” materials: potato peelings, dead plants, leaves, shredded paper (I use junk mail, which is probably not recommended if you are going to use the compost for a vegetable bed- you never know what is in the ink or paper). Green materials are fairly obvious: flowers, green leaves, tops of pineapples, melon rinds (these can seriously stink if you don’t have enough aeration), the old celery from the back of the refrigerator, etc.

Every so often, you should add a shovelful of your best dirt to the compost pile– the microorganisms supposedly help with the breakdown of the organic matter.

Some of my favorite things to add to the compost pile: Cat hair (this works well to keep the mice away), flower arrangements and non-protein (don’t use meat or dairy) kitchen scraps, dead Japanese beetles, dandelions. I always add a handful of Yarrow (Achillea), a perennial plant that I grow in my garden because it supposedly heats up the compost more quickly (which is desirable).  If you add weeds to your pile make sure that you haven’t treated them with chemicals first, particularly if you will use the compost in your vegetable bed.

Do not add animal feces or meat or dairy products.

The most important thing to add is water. I’ve heard that the pile should have the dampness of a wrung-out sponge.  I usually operate under the 12 second rule– 1 gallon of water comes out of the hose every 12 seconds- and I try to add 2 gallons of water whenever it needs it (weekly or so in the summer).

In winter, we keep a 5 gallon bucket outside the back door to throw compost scraps in so that we don’t have to walk over to the compost bin through 5 feet of snow.

This spring, you should empty your compost bin so that you can start the season fresh– I usually bury anything that hasn’t completely composted and use the nice compost at the bottom of the composter as a top dressing for my new beds.  The old beds like some too, and if you have enough compost, it works well for potted outdoor plants.  Be careful not to smother the crowns of existing plants when you distribute the compost– an upside down bucket over the top of a plant will help with that.

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2 Responses to Composting basics

  1. Water Garden says:

    You always talk about using compost for mulch and improving lawns. Water Garden

  2. Tiffany says:

    This is some really good information. I know they sell products for composting at Composters that helps with winter composting and pet waste disposal.

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