Many people long for smooth black dirt in their gardens, however very few of us are fortunate enough to have perfect soil conditions. Many plants will thrive in less than ideal soil, but with a little help your plants can have that nice loamy earth they deserve! Composting is a great way to achieve nice soil, as well as use and recycle common household and yard wastes. It is a very simple concept that will keep you looking for more!
Compost is a mix of air, water, carbon and nitrogen. All 4 elements must be present for the best breakdown of the material to result in compost. Air is needed for the bacteria to properly decompose the matter. The easiest way to incorporate air into you compost pile is to fluff or turn the material every week or so. This will keep the pile from becoming compacted and also stir the components together. Your pile also needs water to help composition. Water can be added as the pile dries out, easily done with a hose before stirring. Stirring will help the water to be distributed equally and help avoid areas that are soaked as well as areas that are completely dry. Carbon materials are also needed, some examples are: leaves, straw, or corn stalks. The carbon material is often referred to as the “brown” ingredients. These can be found around the yard, and generally will be brown in color. You will want to pick leaves that have fallen and are dry. Straw and corn stalks should also be dried out before thrown onto the pile. Carbon is used as the energy source for the bacteria that break down the matter. The last ingredient is Nitrogen. The matters generally used to add nitrogen to your pile are moist, green plant matter and animal manure. Grass clippings are great to incorporate nitrogen into the pile. For animal manures, you will want to use manure from plant eating animals. Horse manure is a great choice! The nitrogen ingredients are referred to as the “green” ingredients in the compost.
Now that you know the ingredients, we need a spot to place all that “stuff”! There are many different options for a compost pile. One very easy option is just to make a pile in a corner of your yard on the ground. You can use a pitch fork or shovel to mix the matter together and the pile will gradually build itself into compost. Another simple option is to build a “box” out of fencing materials. You can use chicken wire or any fencing material that is gridded. The “box” should be 3-4 feet across to allow for proper air flow and stirring. There are also many products sold at nurseries and home improvement stores. These are all great options; you will just need to choose the one that is best for you. The more you turn the pile the quicker it will decompose. A flat pile will take a while to decompose, anywhere from 6-24 months. Using a box or compost container will shorten the waiting time drastically. Some composting boxes take only weeks to decompose the matter. Heat, moisture, bugs, worms, and light all effect the composting time. You will know when it is ready when you cannot identify the original materials. All the matters should have decomposed and turned into a nice dark brown soil.
The best way to use compost is to place it into your soil at planting time and incorporate it into the garden. In established beds you can simply place it around the plants and as you water or when it rains the compost will join into the soil and begin to feed the plants.
Gardening is so much fun, and there is always something new to learn and try. I highly suggest starting a compost pile in your backyard; your plants will thank you!