You work hard in your garden.
But sometimes it’s just not enough. No amount of water, sun, or fertilizer seems to be helping your garden.
It just keeps on getting worse.
You may find some of your plants are withered. Or the tomatoes you harvested just don’t taste good. Or maybe your plants are not even sprouting from seed.
What could be the problem?
You might be facing the problem every gardener faces at some point in their gardening life. And that is a lack of organic matter in the soil.
The best way to get some healthy organic matter into your soil is to add compost to it. So let’s take a look at how you can make your own compost and build the healthy garden you deserve.
What is composting?
Composting is the process where you put animal, vegetable, and mineral waste into the soil to make it rich in organic matter.
You may see composting taking place in nature when the dried leaves, plants, and wood gets mixed in the soil, decomposes, and later turns into a dark, fertile soil that encourages other plants to grow.
When you want to make your own compost you need to do the same thing but with a few techniques that will fasten the process. This will help you get rich, organic compost for your garden in a short period of time.
There is no right or wrong way to make your own compost. As long as the material you use is biodegradable, it will decompose eventually and you will end up with rich, organic matter for your garden.
The only things you need is common sense and good organic material that you have available to create your own compost.
Why composting is the best thing you can do?
It helps save the planet
For many years we have been dumping our kitchen waste in landfills. And these landfills have been filling up fast with no more space.
This problem has reached such a stage that many landfills have banned yard waste from reaching them.
Nearly three-fourth of the waste that households produce is organic matter that can be made into compost and reused.
So you can see how just by adding your kitchen and yard waste to your compost pile you will replenish the earth and help save the planet.
It makes your soil healthy
Healthy soil is one of the most important factors when it comes to having a healthy growing garden.
Healthy soil cannot be produced just by adding fertilizer to it. It needs the right amount of rich organic matter to be able to sustain healthy plants. And adding compost is just the thing your soil needs for getting such organic matter.
Compost will also ensure that the plants are free from disease and insects. It will also provide fertile soil for the roots of the plants to grow into. Deep, healthy roots will ensure the plants are protected against wind and other stress placed on them.
Compost will provide your soil with a decent amount of nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. It also provides several micronutrients to the soil that most farmers are not aware of. The more varied the contents of your compost the more nutrients will be added to the soil. And you might not even need to use fertilizer if the compost is really good.
Adding compost to your soil will also change the composition of the soil. If you have sandy soil, it does not retain moisture well and drains water too quickly. Adding compost to sandy soil will make it more crumbly and better able to retain moisture for the roots of plants.
If you have clay soil, it will not drain water well and lead to rotting of the roots. If you add compost to such soil, it will create an aggregate that is better able to drain the moisture from the soil.
Dark crumbly soil provides the right amount of air circulation to the roots of plants and encourages the growth of essential microorganisms like bacteria, fungi as well as useful insects and earthworms.
Adding compost to the soil can also help balance the pH levels of the soil without any additional efforts. The insects and worms modify the pH of the soil when they digest compost.
How friendly organisms help you make compost
Most of us think that insects, bacteria, and fungi are bad, right?
We don’t want any of these organisms in our houses and surroundings and do everything we can to prevent them from reaching us. That’s why we end up spraying insecticide in our yard and disinfectants in our homes.
But when it comes to making your own compost, it is these very organisms that are your best friends. The main ingredient of making your own compost is decomposition of organic matter and these organisms will do just that.
Bacteria and fungi
The most useful organisms when it comes to decomposition while making your own compost are the microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes.
When you put the organic matter like dry leaves, grass clippings, garbage, kitchen waste for composting they are broken down by microorganisms so that they release the essential nutrients into the soil.
This nutrient dense soil is the compost that will provide your plants with the nutrients that they need for a healthy growth and wholesome harvest.
What food do these microorganisms need to survive?
For such microorganisms to work you do need to provide some nutrients that they need. This includes carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture.
The organisms need carbon as their major food source. This includes the dry, fibrous plant material like leaves, stalks, straw, and sawdust.
Nitrogen is required as a protein source so they can break down their food. You can provide this using grass clippings, manure, blood meal, and kelp meal. Nitrogen acts as an activator and helps the microorganisms start the process of decomposition.
If the nitrogen content of your organic matter is low the decomposition will be slow or come to a halt. If the nitrogen content is too high it will release ammonia and cause a stench in your compost.
Like most living beings, they need a good supply of oxygen to survive. The bacteria that will do the best work of decomposition are the aerobes that need oxygen. Once the supply of oxygen is not available they die and the anaerobes take over. These bacteria don’t need oxygen but they are a lot slow in decomposing organic matter and also leave a stench in your compost.
And finally, they need moisture so they are able to survive and decompose matter. If the moisture content is low, the decomposition will slow down. And if there is excess moisture, it will suffocate these helpful organisms.
What are the different bacteria and how do they help you compost?
There are three main types of bacteria that help with your composting.
When you start building your compost, the first type of bacteria that will arrive are the psychrophiles which survive at a low temperature of about 50 degree Fahrenheit.
These will start to digest the organic matter and in the process release a lot of heat. This will start to raise the temperature in your compost.
Once the temperature in your compost reaches around 70 to 90 degree Fahrenheit, the psychrophiles die and are replaced by the mesophiles that can survive at this temperature.
These are some of the best bacteria for making compost as they digest organic matter fast and release fertile castings in the soil. Again, as a byproduct of the decomposition the temperature of the compost keeps increasing.
Once the temperature rises to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the thermophiles take over and continue with the decomposition process till they raise the temperature to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the decomposition will be done when the temperature is stable at this level and you know your compost is getting ready for use.
If the temperature drops, the psychrophiles and mesophiles may make a return as long as there is organic matter available otherwise the decomposition will stop.
Other than the microorganisms, there are the insects, worms, spiders, and nematodes that will help enrich your soil with nutrients.
These organisms will eat up the organic matter your provide and break them down into smaller pieces that can be digested by the bacteria and fungi. And this ends up releasing more nutrients into the soil.
One of the best organisms for your compost are earthworms. They will eat up the organic matter, digest it and leave castings in the soil that are very fertile.
They also consume the bacteria and fungi as part of the organic matter and release even more nutrients into the soil.
No wonder they are called as the friends of farmers because they truly are.
If you want to know whether your compost creation is on the right track, the easiest way is to check it for the presence of earthworms. A lot of them means your compost is doing great.
Where can you find good compost materials?
You should be able to find good compost materials in your environment if you look hard enough.
If your neighborhood is extremely clean and tidy it might a little challenging to find such materials and you may have to buy some good cheap compostable materials.
But for most of us it should be easy enough to find such materials. The more variety of materials we find the better it is. This is because some materials like hay may be high carbon and will not break down well. Other material like grass clippings end up being broken down by anaerobic bacteria and create a stench. Or something like leaves will cover up the compost and block the oxygen.
A good compostable material should be biodegradable and it should provide the right nutrients to the microorganisms as it decomposes.
Some materials you may find near you
Let’s take a look at some compost materials that you could find around the neighborhood or buy somewhere nearby.
This is one of the easiest compost materials you’ll find in your home. And it’s also one the best if you are careful about it.
Organic kitchen waste will provide the best decomposition and nutrients to your compost pile.
However, before you dump it in the pile you should be careful it does not contain oil or animal fat. This is because decomposition of such fat takes a long time. And such oil will coat the fibrous material in the pile and won’t allow it to decompose as well.
You can use animal waste as part of your compost pile but you need to protect it from animals like rats and flies. One simple way to do this is to add it deep into your compost pile.
You also need to check with the regulations in your neighborhood as some areas don’t allow using such animal waste in compost piles.
Another simple way of getting compost material is using your grass clippings. They are a good source of nutrients for your soil.
You need to be sure to dry the grass clippings well before you use them otherwise they tend to get soggy and smelly as they decompose.
You can do this by drying them out in the sun for a while before using them. Or mixing them with dry leaves before using in your compost pile. Or adding a thin layer of the grass clippings in the pile.
Another worry people have with grass clippings is the pesticides that might have been used in the lawn. You can ensure not to use pesticides in your lawn or if you do make sure to allow sufficient time for your compost to get rid of those pesticides before you use it in the soil.
You will find hedge trimmings and pruned branches from your garden and you can use those in the compost pile.
However you need to make sure those are shredded before you use them because it takes a lot of time for large hedge trimmings to decompose.
You can use a few large hedge trimmings to give your compost pile better aeration but don’t use a lot of it.
Leaves are one of the best materials you can add to your compost pile and they are readily available.
The only problem is it takes a lot of time for them to decompose and you may be better off shredding them before use. However, this is worth the effort because of the high nutrients that these leaves provide to your compost.
You can dry the leaves in addition to shredding them. And you can add some parts of the leaves with a part of animal manure to give the best results in your compost pile.
You could even kill two birds with one stone. As part of your fall yard cleanup, you could mow down the dry leaves and let them decompose on the yard or put them in your compost pile.
One of the easiest materials you’ll find around the house is newspapers. And they can be used as part of your compost pile.
Newspapers don’t have a lot of nutrition but they make for some decent compost material as part of a mixture.
Just make sure that the newspapers are shredded into small pieces before you use them because it takes a while for it to decompose. Also it’s important that your compost pile gets heated up well because newspapers may contain dyes that need to be heated up so they can evaporate and don’t harm the soil.
Pine needles make for some average compost material. They take a while to break down and don’t provide that much nutrition but do provide good texture to the compost.
They can make the soil a bit acidic but when used with a combination of other compost materials this should not be a problem.
It might sound like a bad idea to add weeds to your compost pile but they are one of the best sources of organic matter.
You just need to be careful to put them in the compost pile where the temperature reaches around 135 degrees Fahrenheit. This will kill the weed seeds and prevent them from germinating.
The more weeds you add to the compost pile the more you need to add matter that releases nitrogen so that the temperatures can increase and kill the seeds.
You should also make sure to put those weeds at the center of the pile where the temperature is the highest. If you put them on the top there is a possibility that they will start germinating in the compost.
Hay or straw
You can get hay or straw from farms for your compost pile. However, these materials need a lot of nitrogen to decompose when they are unweathered.
So you need to make sure you get weathered hay or straw. This means they should have turned gray and in an already decomposing condition that makes them unfit for animal consumption.
In case you can only get unweathered hay or straw then just use a small amount of them in your compost pile to allow bacteria to break them down without the need for a ton of nitrogen.
Ashes are a good source of nutrients in your compost pile. But you need to be careful which ashes you use.
You cannot use coal ash as it is toxic to plants but you can use wood ash that you get from the fireplace.
The best types of organic ash are ones you get from burning the skins of fruits and vegetables like bananas, lemons and cucumbers.
They provide a rich source of potassium and phosphorus to the compost pile. The best way to use the ash in your compost is to add several layers of it. This avoids the potassium from getting washed away in the rain.
If you can get them feathers are a great source of nitrogen for your compost.
The easiest way to get them is from farms that have birds like chickens, turkeys, and other fowls.
One of the best sources of organic matter for your compost is using hops from brewery waste.
You just need to be careful not to water them a lot because they tend to already be moist when you get them. If they are too moist you need to ensure turning the compost often to help the aerate the mix.
Ground stone and shells
Rocks and stones contain a lot of minerals that are valuable for your compost pile. But the problem is to get them ground to a fine dust so they can be absorbed by the compost.
You can do the same with ground clam, lobster, and crab shells that will provide a rich source of calcium carbonate to your compost.
Peat moss does not provide your compost with a lot of nutrients.
However it tends to decompose a lot slower than some of the other compost material. This makes it an ideal material to give your compost some good texture and conditioning.
Sawdust is a decent addition to your compost pile if you’re careful with it. Too much of it will block the air from reaching the layers of compost. So the best way is to add it in light layers between layers of manure.
The best type of sawdust you can use in your compost is weathered sawdust because it will decompose a lot faster than unweathered material.
Seaweed is one of the best materials for your compost because it decomposes easily and has a ton of nutrients.
It is a good source of potassium in your compost. It also provides elements like boron, iodine, calcium, magnesium, and sodium that are essential for plants.
Seaweed can also be put on top of the compost to act as an insulating layer in the cold season of winter.
Sod makes some good material for your compost because of the nutrients it provides as well as the insulation.
It acts as a good topsoil as well as adds organic matter to your compost. The best way to use sod is to sprinkle it to the top of your compost. Do this in the fall and it will be absorbed in the compost by spring.
Don’t use these materials in your compost
Over a period of time, the volume of your compost pile will reduce. And you may be tempted to add more material that will do it more harm than good. Let’s take a look at some of the things you should not be adding to your compost pile.
You can find a ton of non-biodegradable stuff in your house but that does not belong to your compost pile.
Materials made of glass, aluminium, and plastic do not decompose and have no place in the compost pile. Even if you add them there it will not harm your compost but it will not benefit it either.
Cloth could be used if you’re sure it does not contain synthetic material that is non-biodegradable.
It’s very important that you don’t add diseased plant material to your compost pile. This is because the disease can easily get transmitted to the plants you use the compost in.
Many disease producing bacteria and fungi can be destroyed if the temperature of your compost pile reaches a certain level. But you can never be sure if this will actually happen.
So the safest way to deal with diseased plants is to burn them up and then use the ashes as part of your compost.
You may be tempted to add toxic chemicals like insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides to your compost to keep away insects and pests. However, such chemicals will also kill the useful microorganisms that are an essential part of your compost.
So keep your compost pile away from such toxic chemicals if you want to create some good compost.
Ash of burned plants and wood is good for your compost. However the same cannot be said of coal ash. This is because coal ash contains a lot of sulfur and iron that is toxic to your plants.
You should also not add charcoal to your compost because it takes years to decompose.
We think that pet litter can be a good source of organic materials for the compost. But there is a danger that we should be aware of.
Cat and dog litter may contain harmful bacteria and parasites that cause serious problems to humans including brain and eye diseases.
So the best thing you can do is avoid adding such litter to your compost pile and stay safe.
When you live in a city, the sludge that you may find at disposal facilities is highly toxic and contains harmful organisms.
They might be destroyed if the sludge is treated to high temperatures but there is no need for you to take the risk. Simply avoid using sludge as part of your compost pile.
What are activators for your compost pile?
We know that composting means decomposition of the organic matter that you put into it.
Some organic matter can take a lot of time to decompose than others and you may want to speed up the process. That’s where an activator will help you.
An activator is a catalyst that will speed up the decomposition process by providing essential nitrogen and protein to your compost. This will help the microorganisms to start working and thriving in your compost and activate the decomposition process.
There are many types of natural and synthetic products you can use as activators so let’s take a look at some of them.
Animal manure is a good source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for your compost. In addition, it also provides beneficial microorganisms that are needed in your compost.
The best types of manure are bat, cow, horse, hen, duck, goose, pig, and sheep manure that you can get from a farm.
The fresh manure contains a lot of water so you need to be careful while using it so that it does not affect the water content of your compost pile. It may also suffocate the good microorganisms and macroorganisms in the compost pile.
Fresh manure also tends to heat up the compost pile quickly which may kill the good bacteria and other essential organisms of your compost pile.
Poultry manure is the best source of nitrogen for your compost pile. Though you should use it with a combination of material like sawdust or hay.
It’s much better to use well-rotted manure that has lower water content and does not smell as much. The best way to do this is to let the fresh manure dry out in the open for several days before you can add it to your compost.
One drawback of animal manure is that it may contain weed seeds that could sprout in your compost if they are not killed by the rise in temperatures. And if that is often the case you may need to stay away from using a lot of manure.
One of the best natural activators you can find is the finished compost you have. Adding this compost to your fresh compost pile will provide the necessary microorganisms and earthworms to activate the compost pile.
The best way to use this is to add about 2 inches of compost for every 12 inches of new organic matter in your compost pile.
Another good way to use compost as an activate is in the form of compost tea. You just need to put the finished compost in a cheesecloth bag and hang it into a bucket of water for a few days. The dark liquid that forms is known as compost tea and is a very good compost activator.
Vegetable and animal meal
One of the best activators you can find is vegetable and animal meal. Animal meal could be blood meal, horn meal, hoof meal, and fish meal.
If you’re a vegetarian and don’t want to use animal products or just feel squeamish using them you can opt for the vegetable meals like alfalfa meal or cottonseed meal. These do not smell, are easy to use, and are readily available.
Do note that these vegetable and animal meals tend to be a bit expensive. And you need to use a generous sprinkling every 6 inches of organic matter in your compost pile. Then water the compost well and they start doing their work wonderfully.
The only drawback with vegetable meals like cottonseed meal is they can contain pesticides as part of the residue from cotton fields so you need to be careful using them.
Soil is one of the best activators you can use in the compost pile that contains healthy microorganisms. The soil that works best is the loam that consists of a mixture of silt, sand, and clay.
You need to add a layer of about 2 inches of loam for every 6 inches of organic matter in your compost.
Just be careful that the soil you use does not contain insecticides, pesticides, or herbicides as they are toxic to the microorganisms in compost.
The best would be to use soil from the woods or the mucky soil from the swamp that is free from such chemicals.
You might consider using artificial activators instead of organic ones for your compost pile. However they are not the best choice for activation.
Something like a complete fertilizer having an NPK value of 10-5-10 may work in adding more nitrogen to the soil and help with the activation.
You will need to add a cup of the fertilizer for every 10 square feet of the compost pile surface. You can consider something like sodium nitrate or calcium nitrate but do note that they are acidic and you may need to use lime to neutralize this.
Overall it’s much better to use a natural activator instead of a fertilizer. It’s much better to use the fertilizer once you have planted your plants so they can provide the nutrients to them.
If you find that your composting is not going fine due to too much rain, heat, or cold in your area you can try using bacterial activators.
You can get them in the form of tablets or granules that you can mix with a gallon of water and spray it in the compost. They contain the essential microorganisms that can start the decomposition process in your compost.
In most cases, using natural activators should be more than sufficient because nature will take care of introducing the useful microorganisms and macroorganisms in your compost.
But if you do want to use such bacterial activators you can go ahead as they will not do any harm to your compost.
What are different composting methods?
There are different composting methods you can find and you don’t need to stick to one of them. If you prefer you can use one or a combination of them for your composting needs.
Heaps are one of the simplest methods of creating your own compost. You just need to pile the material into a heap in an open area.
If you can pile the heap on top of a future garden site that will make it convenient as you don’t need to move the compost once it’s ready. It will also prevent leaching of nutrients as all of it will be used in the soil.
One good way of using heaps is to create two of them. So once you’ve built one heap you start building another one next to it. In this way you can get two compost heaps at different stages of composting.
There are four essential things you should consider while using heap methods for composting.
- You should make the compost pile in layers alternating between green materials and dry materials.
- You should make sure there is sufficient but not excess moisture in your compost pile.
- The size of the compost pile should be just big enough to provide the right heating and insulation.
- You should make sure the compost pile has good aeration so that the decomposition process can take place.
Let’s take a look at an example of a heap method you can use to create your compost pile.
The University of California Method
This method of using a heap to create a compost pile can be explained in three steps.
- Chop up the organic materials you are going to add to the compost pile. This will help increase the surface area of these organic materials.
- Add a good mixture of an activator like manure and high-carbon material like leaves, hay, or grass clippings.
- Turn the compost pile every three days to keep it well aerated and ensure that the heat is evenly distributed across all the materials in the pile.
- After a couple of weeks, the pile will cool down and you’ll be able to use the partially sterilized compost in your garden. And after a few months, the full decomposition will take place and provide your garden with rich compost.
Sheet composting is an alternative to the heap method of composting. You are directly creating the compost on your garden bed instead of a compost pile.
This ensures that essential nutrients are not leached out of the compost pile as they are directly fed to your garden bed. However, you don’t have a chance to eliminate weeds that might grow in the bed and you need to kill them with chemicals.
Some of the best materials you can use for sheet composting are grass clippings, leaves, and manure. In this method of composting, you need to use a rototiller to till the organic materials deep into the soil. This will help them decompose and provide the nutrients to microorganisms and earthworms.
This method does take a long time for creating compost so you need to start with sheet composting at the end of a gardening season.
Cover crop method
You can use green manure as part of your sheet composting method. This means you plant crops like corn, tomatoes, peas, or kale and then till them once they have grown to a certain level.
Once you till them into the soil, they will become a rich source of nutrients for the microorganisms. You should do this at least six weeks before you want to plant your crops. This is because the organic material in the soil will consume a lot of nitrogen during the six weeks. Afterwards, the compost will be ready and it will provide a good source of the nitrogen back to the soil.
Legumes like peas, beans, soybeans, alfalfa are great for enriching the soil with nitrogen. Other plant like oats, wheat, and weeds will become a rich source of organic matter for your soil.
Pit composting is a method of composting where you bury garbage under the earth and allow the decomposition to take place.
It has the advantage that the decomposition taking place is hidden from sight. And the composting material will be warmer in winter and damper in summer.
You can just throw waste material into a hole that is 12 inches deep and cover it with soil so that it starts decomposing. This waste material can include things like food scraps, flowers, weeds, and kitchen waste.
Once the compost is ready you can either dig it out of the ground and use it in your garden beds. Or you can make the soil over the pit itself as your garden bed.
You do need to allow plenty of time for the garbage to decompose under the ground before you can start using it. If the decomposition is not complete, you may find problems like harmful bacteria and parasites attacking your plants.
Small-scale composting systems
If you are unable to gather a large enough collection of organic matter for your compost pile, don’t worry. Because there is a method where you can make your own compost using small-scale systems.
Plastic bag composting
You can make a good amount of compost just using a 32 gallon plastic bag.
This will take some time and the method is going to be anaerobic because you’re going to cover all of the garbage in the plastic bag. You do need to open up the bag every day to give it some fresh air.
The best part of this method is you don’t need a lot of space to create your compost. And there is no risk of leaching out the nutrients from the plastic bag.
You do need to keep the plastic bag in a place that is warm enough as the anaerobic composting will not take place in a cold environment.
Put all of your garbage such as food waste, leaves, grass clippings, manure into the plastic bag.
Shake the bag every day and open it up to allow fresh air to reach inside. Do remember to add a little water if it gets too dry or a little grass if it gets too wet.
Once the compost is ready you can open the bag and spread it out so that it gets oxygen and dries up in a couple of days. Mix it up with some soil before using it in your garden.
What are different types of compost containers available?
You can make your compost with the traditional method of using a compost pile. However, that does take some work because you need to make the pile, turn it over occasionally, and make sure that the pile stays in shape.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort to make compost, you can consider using a compost container such as a bin, barrel, or tumbler.
Using a container will help retain the shape of the compost as well as insulate it from heat and cold changes in the weather. It also helps organize the compost much better and looks more tidy than using a compost pile.
Let’s take a look at some of the compost containers you can build or buy from the market.
The oldest method of making a compost container is with wood. Such a wooden bin is open from the top, front, and bottom while being covered on three sides.
The dimensions of such a wooden bin can be 4 x 4 feet which will help retain the heat in the compost.
Wood is a biodegradable material so you should choose long-lasting wood such as cedar, cypress, or redwood. You should also coat the wood with some preservative such as linseed oil.
Another type of compost container that is easy to construct is a wire bin. You can construct this using fencing or chicken wire. Or you can buy it commercially from a gardening company.
The advantage of such a wire bin is that it is easy to construct and dismantle. Once your compost is ready you can just pick the wire bin up and your compost is easily accessible.
This also makes it easy to turn the compost because you can just lift the wire bin up and place it next to the compost. Then pick the compost and put it into the wire bin again.
If you don’t want to do the work of constructing your own compost container you can buy a commercial plastic bin from a gardening company.
It’s very easy to setup and looks attractive in the corner of your garden. It is enclosed from all sides while the bottom is open and there is a lid on the top. So you can access the compost from the top to turn it, aerate it, or take it out.
The only problem with such commercial bins is that they can be a bit small for your needs. But they do have the advantage of retaining most of the heat generated in the compost.
You can add any type of material such as grass clippings, hay, and leaves along with some nitrogenous materials to activate the decomposition and the compost will be ready in a month.
Barrels and drums
If you want to save some money and don’t mind spending some time constructing your compost container, barrels and drums might be a good choice.
Any spare garbage can, barrel, or drum can be made into such a container by drilling holes into the bottom and sides and adding a perforated pipe vertically in the center.
One of the best ways to save time and effort to make your own compost is using a commercially available compost tumbler.
Such a tumbler is available in a variety of shapes and sizes and will look good in a corner of your garden.
You can get tumblers that sit on a stand above the ground to keep the compost away from pests and insects. The tumbler has holes in the sides to aerate the compost. And you can turn the compost with the help of a handle. There is a lid on the top to add water and materials and to take the compost out when it is ready.
Such tumblers are easy to setup and use but you might find them a big small if you want to make a lot of compost.
Some argue that turning the compost in such tumblers causes loss of nitrogen while others say that such tumblers are useful to add different compost materials and get your compost ready in about a month.
If you can construct or buy a compost bin that is circular in shape it will give you the best aeration of the organic matter in it. You can make such circular bins using wire mesh or fencing .
There is not much required to construct a block bin for making your own compost.
If you have cinder blocks you can place them sideways to construct a three-sided compost bin. The holes in the cinder blocks will ensure your compost gets plenty of air.
Also such a block bin will help retain the heat from the sun and keep the compost warm even if the temperature outside drops.
Another easy way of creating a compost container is to make use of hay bales.
Hay is a good insulator that will prevent heat from escaping the compost bin. Also the hay will gradually decompose and provide excellent organic matter to your compost pile.
You could even use the weathered hay as a good mulch to protect your garden from weeds and preserve the moisture in the soil.
Some things to consider when building a compost pile
A compost pile can get a bad reputation based on where you live. Some people think that a compost pile will attract pests, insects, dogs, and other animals.
They may feel that a compost pile is dirty and will attract flies and insects that cause disease.
This is not the case because your compost pile consists of organic plant matter that will not attract insects and pests. Any food waste that you add to your compost pile will be in the center of the pile and will not attract animals and rodents.
If you do feel that animals and rodents can be a problem in your compost you can cover it up using something like chicken wire.
Location of your compost pile
It’s important that your compost pile is placed in a good location that is convenient to your as well as to the soil.
Make sure that the compost pile is close to the garden where you will be using the compost. This will save you a lot of time and effort moving the material to and from the garden. If you have a large vehicle that can transport the compost you need not worry about this.
It’s good to keep your compost pile near a water source or at least have a garden hose reaching the pile so that you can add water to the compost as required.
If you want to be optimal you can build the compost pile right on top of the garden bed so that it does not leach out essential nutrients which could happen while moving the compost from one place to another.
If you live in a cold environment it would be nice to keep your compost pile with access to the sun so that it can stay warm and decompose well. On the other hand if you stay in a warmer climate you can place the compost pile in shade so that it does not lose out moisture quickly.
If the climate you live in is moderate you need not bother too much about the location of your compost pile. Just keep providing it with organic matter and moisture and it will do just fine.
Foundation of your compost pile
Many people like to create their compost pile on the ground where the compost meets the soil. This helps to get the microorganisms and earthworms get into the compost from the soil thereby enriching the compost.
Some people take the extra effort of digging a couple of feet and starting a compost pile which gives even better chance for the microorganisms to make the compost their home.
Once the compost is ready and you move it to your garden bed you can leave a portion of it so that when you create a compost pile again the microorganisms are already a part of the pile. And you will create the compost that much faster.
Some people prefer to start a compost pile in a depression so that essential nutrients don’t leach out of the pile. But the problem is that such a compost pile can hold water and smell. Or it will drain too fast and leach out the nutrients.
The best thing you can do is to create the compost pile on level ground that has good drainage.
You could create your compost pile raised above the ground if you worry too much about leaching out nutrients.
You will need to add activator like some compost to get those microorganisms working in your compost.
The advantage of a raised compost pile is you can have good aeration from the bottom but you need to be careful it’s not raised too high. This will circulate too much air and lower the heat of your compost pile which you don’t want.
You could build such a compost pile on a base of wire or wooden pallets. Some people want their compost pile to look attractive and use something like a stone slab. This also prevents nutrients from leaching out through the bottom. However such a method does not allow air to properly flow into the bottom of the compost.
The same is the case with using a plastic sheet at the bottom of the compost pile. You may save some nutrients in the compost but at the cost of not providing essential oxygen to the microorganisms at the bottom of the pile.
What should be the size of your compost pile?
Your compost pile cannot be too large or too small because each have their own problems.
A compost pile that is too small will not get the insulation it needs to stay heated up. This means every night as the temperatures drop the compost pile will cool down. The pathogenic organisms and weed seeds will not get killed and the compost will take a long time to be ready.
If the compost pile is too large you have the problem that the aeration will not be reaching all the places in the pile. Such areas in the pile will use anaerobic decomposition which is slow and smells a lot. The center of the compost pile will heat up too much killing the essential microorganisms and slowing down the decomposition.
The best you can do is keep the size of your compost pile about 4 to 5 feet in width and height without worrying about the length.
How to use layering in your compost pile?
The best way to create your compost pile is to use layers of organic material in it.
You can create a layer using materials like a green layer followed with a layer of dry weathered materials, a carbon rich layer followed with a nitrogen rich layer, an absorbent layer with a moisture retaining layer.
So something like a 6 inch layer of one vegetable matter followed with a 6 inch layer of another vegetable matter. Then a layer of animal manure, an activator like compost, and finally water.
As your compost pile starts forming, it will also start shrinking in size. You can keep adding layers of organic material as you want.
The best time to start a compost pile is autumn where you can collect the vegetable plants you dig up and the leaves you raked up.
How can you insulate your compost pile?
It’s important to keep your compost pile insulated during the winter so that it can keep working for as long as possible.
A good layer of material like hay, straw, or dried leaves makes for a good way to insulate the pile. You can also consider using an insulating sheet but you need to be careful that it does not touch the top of the compost pile and restrict the aeration.
There are also canvas blankets available that you can cover the compost pile with. The advantage these have is they allow moisture and air to pass through into the compost pile.
What are some methods to speed up composting?
Composting is a process that can take some time and effort. But there are some things you can do to speed up the process a little bit.
Provide enough air
I’ve been stressing about good aeration a few times in this guide. That’s because good air supply will help the organic matter decompose faster.
The best way you can do this is proper planning before creating your compost pile. Even if you don’t have a raised compost pile you can ensure that there is a layer of coarse matter at the bottom with sufficient air channels. Materials like hedge clippings, sunflower stalks work well to create sufficient air channels.
You can even consider putting a pipe through the compost to allow sufficient air flow. Or even creating the compost pile using wire mesh or corn stalks that will keep the pile well aerated.
Provide good moisture
Your compost pile will work the fastest with the right amount of moisture in it.
Too much moisture will prevent oxygen from reaching the microorganisms and cause anaerobic decomposition. Too little moisture will slow down the decomposition process because microorganisms are not getting the nutrients they need.
The best way to know whether the right amount of moisture is present in the pile is to check if it appears as a wrung out sponge.
If you are just watering the top of the compost pile, the water might not reach the center or lower parts. The best way to avoid this problem is to add water as you’re adding organic matter to the pile.
Just make sure to use some common sense while doing this. Wet material like grass clippings don’t need a lot of moisture. But dry material like hay or straw will need a good spray of water as you add it to the pile.
Do check that there is not water dripping out of the compost pile as you water because that will mean you are overwatering.
You can use regular tap water or even water left over from cooking such as stock. That provides a lot of nutrients for your compost pile. Rain water is good as well because it contains a lot of useful organisms as well as nutrients beneficial for your compost.
The problem with rainwater can be that your compost gets over watered because of too much rain. So in case your pile is outdoors you need to make sure it gets a measured amount of rainwater.
To do this you could use a tarp to cover the compost. This should have sufficient outlet to allow the required amount of water to the compost. You do need to ensure that the tarp does not touch the top of the compost and is a few inches higher. This will ensure there is proper air circulation going on in that area.
Do keep checking that the compost pile is warm in several areas and is not too moist but just enough to resemble a well wrung sponge.
Remember to turn the compost
If there’s one major chore of composting it is that you need to turn it every few days.
Sure you can leave the compost and let it decompose on its own and it will in some time. That’s because the insects, worms, and microorganisms will eat through the organic matter and keep turning it. But that is inefficient and will take some time. If you want to speed up the process you will need to turn the compost yourself.
Turning the compost helps to mix the matter well so dry matter will be mixed with wet, partially decomposed matter will mix with fully decomposed matter.
When you turn your compost it allows sufficient oxygen to flow through it. So if any areas were not getting good oxygen they will and it will not cause part decomposition in the pile. It will help prevent anaerobic activity taking place in the pile and causing a stench. In case you do find a stench you can keep turning the pile every day till it disappears.
The ideal way to turn the compost is to turn it when the temperature drops to a certain level. So you need to measure the temperature of your compost pile.
But you don’t need to really do it as turning the pile every six weeks or so should be sufficient to get the job done. Too much turning will not allow the microorganisms to do their job because you end up killing some of them.
Turning the compost in a single pile or container is tough because you will not know whether all of it has been done successfully or not.
If you have a removable compost container your job becomes that much easier. You just need to lift the container and put it aside. Then pick up the compost and fill it back into the container.
You could even have two containers where you pick the compost from one container and dump it into the other effectively turning the compost.
Reduce the size of organic matter before composting
Some organic matter is going to take a longer time to decompose than others. This includes material like cabbage and broccoli stems, corn stalks, pieces of wood.
You need to cut such material into smaller pieces so that the decomposition speeds up and you get your compost fast. That’s because the microorganisms find it easier to digest through the smaller pieces.
When material like leaves are chopped up microorganisms find it easier to break them down because they don’t have the tough cellulose to get through.
You do need to be careful on how fine the pieces are because too fine and they may form a paste that covers up the compost preventing air and moisture from reaching inside.
Chopping up material into small pieces will also allow the compost pile to hold more volume. And you’ll be able to make more of it in a single batch.
You can use a kitchen blender to get all the plant and vegetable waste blended together with a little water and used in the compost. Do remember that this will also increase the moisture content of your compost.
You can use a machete to hack the wood into tiny pieces that go into your compost pile. If you can afford it and do a lot of composting you can invest in a chipper. Do consider a chipper that is durable, allows you to change the size of the chips, and is the right size for your garden.
To shred material like leaves you could use a lawn mower and move it over the leaves till they are chopped up into tiny pieces.
What are some things you should understand for composting?
Composting is a simple enough process that as long as you’re using the right organic matter and allowing it to decompose you will have a good result.
However there are a few things you should know that can be helpful while creating your own compost.
If there is one important thing to understand about your compost it is the pH level. This gives an indication of the acid/alkaline levels of the compost.
Too acidic or too alkaline compost will act as poison and kill the microorganisms and plants in the soil.
The pH level ranges from 1 to 14 where 1 means entirely acidic and 14 means entirely alkaline. A good pH level ranges between 6.5 to slightly above 7 where microorganisms and plants thrive.
The pH level of your compost will vary from the start till the final compost is ready. It might be a bit more acidic to start and then end up in the right range.
Don’t take the measurement immediately after starting a compost pile as the readings will be distorted. Wait till the compost is added to the soil to take your measurement and then you can adjust the pH if you find it too acidic or alkaline.
You can measure the pH level of your soil by sending a sample to a university Extension Service near you or you can use one of the soil sample tests you can buy.
If the soil is too acidic you can add lime which increases the alkaline levels in it. If it’s too alkaline you can add oak leaves or pine needles to bring the acidity levels up.
NPK stands for the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels in the soil. These are the most essential nutrients you soil needs to grow healthy plants.
You will see the NPK values mentioned on the fertilizer package as N-P-K. For example, it could be 10-6-4 which indicates 10% nitrogen, 6% phosphorus, and 4% potassium.
Fertilizers that contain moderate amounts of NPK like 10-6-4 or 10-20-10 are known as complete because they contain all the three nutrients. Something with an N-P-K of 0-20-0 is a super phosphate that contains a high amount of phosphorus.
You don’t need to worry about creating the best compost will the perfect amount of NPK because that is not the purpose of compost. Compost should contain rich organic matter and the micro and macro organisms that will enrich the soil.
Once you have your compost added to the soil you can test the soil for nutrient deficiency and add the fertilizer with the right amounts of NPK as required.
Nitrogen provides the plants with the nutrients that makes the leaves and stems grow green and healthy. A plant that is nitrogen deficient will look pale yellow in color.
Nitrogen tends to escape easily from the soil either as gas or by leaching out. So you need to keep adding it to the soil. The main purpose of compost is to have the essential microorganisms in the soil that tend to create and retain nitrogen added to the soil.
Phosphorus is essential for the healthy growth of fruits, flowers, and roots in the plants. A phosphorus deficient plant will droop and its root system will be weak.
Phosphorus does not escape from the soil as gas and neither does it leach out of the soil easily. You can improve the phosphorus content of the soil by adding rock phosphate or bone meal.
You can add rock phosphate as a light sprinkling after every few layers in the compost.
Potassium is essential for plants to develop chlorophyll as well as to improve the health of the plants and protect them from diseases.
Potassium does not escape as gas but can leach out of the soil easily. You can increase the potassium in the soil by adding wood ash or greensand.
The heat in your compost pile is a good measure that the thermophilic microorganisms are doing their work.
However, you don’t need to worry too much even if the temperatures in your compost pile are not reaching the high of 150 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Even at temperatures around 55 degrees Fahrenheit the mesophilic microorganisms are doing the work of enriching the soil gradually.
You may want the high temperatures if you have added plant material that is seeding or diseased plants. But other than that there should be no concern of having high temperatures.
In fact too much heat above 150 degrees Fahrenheit can kill essential microorganisms and earthworms.
A small compost pile has the problem that it radiates the heat out of the sides. But that does not mean you should not compost if you are unable to get a lot of material. Even at low temperatures, the psychrophilic microorganisms will continue doing their work and decomposing the matter though at a slower rate.
You can use a composting thermometer or a simple metal pipe pushed through the compost pile. Take it out and check the temperature to see how the compost pile is doing.
Disease causing pathogens
Pathogens that cause disease may enter into your compost pile when you add plant and vegetable matter to it. And if you’re not careful this can then affect the soil you add the compost to and cause problems for the plants you grow in it.
If you have an active compost pile with a lot of good bacteria doing their work they will not allow nutrients to these pathogens. They also release organic compounds that kill such pathogens.
Your compost pile may reach temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit that tends to kill such pathogens.
However, if your compost pile cannot reach these temperatures you need to make sure you don’t add diseased material to it.
Weeds can be an annoyance in your compost pile so make sure they are not allowed to grow.
The problem is that the roots of such weeds suck up the moisture you provide from the top of the compost and don’t allow it to reach the center. This means you end up with dry material that is not decomposing.
So as soon as you see weeds growing in the compost pluck them out and allow them to die providing more rich organic matter to your compost.
How to use the compost you created
Creating compost can take some time depending on your climate and the method you use. Usually you can end up with finished compost anywhere from three to six months if you do all the right things needed.
Your finished compost should look dark in color. It should be crumbly between your fingers which makes it perfect for allowing air and moisture in the soil but also draining out excess water.
The compost must undergo some level of heating so that it kills the pathogens and weed seeds that might be present in it.
When to add the compost to your soil?
The best time to add compost to the soil is fall so that it gets the time over winter to be incorporated into the soil and be ready for planting season.
You can even add compost that is partially ready instead of waiting for it to be fully done if you don’t have the time.
You don’t need to dig the compost into the soil. Just put it on top of the soil and slowly it will be incorporated.
If you are worried that the compost may dry out, you can use a rototiller or garden tractor to till the compost into the soil.
It’s much better to add compost to the soil as soon as it is ready because if you keep the compost it tends to leach and lose its value. It can remain for about six months before it really starts to lose all important microorganisms and nutrients.
You can even add the compost to the soil in spring a month before planting even if it is not fully ready. This will offer nutrients and conditioning to the soil and help growth.
You might worry that the unfinished compost still needs nitrogen and is taking it from the soil. But it’s not usually a problem and you’ll need to test the soil for nutrient deficiency after adding the compost. If you find the nitrogen levels low, you can always add good fertilizer that brings it up.
Just make sure you have plenty of time to add the fertilizer before planting because it takes time to dissolve and start working in the compost.
How to add compost for your plants?
You can use compost for all types of plants such as seedlings, potted plants, crops, shrubs, and trees.
Compost can help improve the soil content especially if your soil contains too much clay or sand.
If you don’t mind the hard work, you can till the compost 3-4 inches into the soil to improve it. If not you can just put the compost on the top of the soil and use a rototiller or garden tractor to till it into the soil.
If you practice no-till gardening, you can just put a layer of compost on top of the soil and in some time it will be incorporated into the soil.
If you have a new garden that does not have good topsoil you can put a few inches of compost on the ground and till it about 6 inches deep. Keep doing this for a few years and you will have top quality topsoil.
Seedlings need good nutrition and compost can give them exactly that. You can create a good seedling mixture by mixing one-third compost, one-third soil, and one-third coarse sand.
The mixture will provide all the nutrients the seedlings need till you transplant them about six to eight weeks later.
If you’re creating a garden bed for perennials you can create a trench that is 8 inches wide and 1½ inches deep and fill it with compost.
If you already have planted perennials you can add compost as a mulch on top of the soil. If you try to mix it into the soil you risk damaging the roots.
If you’re creating a garden bed for annual plants and vegetables, you can add 2 inches of compost on the soil and then mix it into the soil 6 to 8 inches deep.
If you already have plants in the soil, you can just put the compost as a mulch on the top of the soil otherwise you risk damaging the plants and the roots.
If you have a good amount of compost you can consider using it as a garden mulch and add a good layer of it on your soil.
This will help protect the plants from weeds and provide good aeration and moisture to the roots and microorganisms in the soil.
Shrubs and trees
You can add 1 to 2 inches of compost around the base of the shrubs and trees and mix it gently into the soil.
For trees you can make the compost itself near the base so that the roots can get the beneficial nutrients being leached while making the compost.
You can make some good potting soil using compost. Just mix one-third compost and two-thirds soil to get good potting soil.
If you are adding it to the plants just add an inch of the compost on the soil and water it a little.
If you’re just starting a lawn you can put 2 inches of compost on the soil and till it well before putting the seeds.
If you already have a lawn you can just sprinkle a fine layer of the compost and provide sufficient water to it.
Can you add too much compost?
There can never be too much of a good thing, right?
In the case of compost, it can seriously mess up your soil content if you add too much of it.
Compost that is heavy in materials like carbon can cause your soil pH to go out of balance. This means your soil will be too acidic or alkaline and it will be hard to grow anything.
This problem can also occur if your compost is partially decomposed and is heavy in a particular type of material.
Your compost can also make it hard for the soil to retain water if it is not fully decomposed. This could be a temporary issue if your compost continues decomposing as expected. However some materials like sawdust take a long time to decompose and will not allow water to retain in your soil leaving your plants dry.
How much compost you need to use depends on your soil, climate, and the compost. But a general rule is that your soil should contain about 5 to 10 percent organic matter.
Now is a good time to make your compost
Now is the time to make your hard work pay off.
You’ve taken care of your plants. Given them the air, water, and sunlight that they need.
No more will you have to worry about not getting the results you want. You will have beautiful plants, juicy red tomatoes, and pretty roses in your garden.
All you need to do is start making some compost of your own and add it to your soil.
So get out there and build your compost pile.
Do it now.