By Kim Nichols
What to compost:
Fruit and vegetable peels and scraps, banana peels, rotten fruit and veggies,
houseplant trimmings, coffee grounds, unbleached paper filters, tea leaves,
eggshells, paper, cardboard, shredded newspaper, napkins, paper towels, grass clippings, leaves, flowers, raw sawdust, raw wood chips, hay.
What not to compost:
Pet waste, bones or meat, fish or poultry, dairy products, walnuts, coal ash or charcoal, large pieces of wood, fat, cooking oil, and grease, pesticide-treated plants, baked goods, plants that are diseased or infested with insects.
1. Create your compost pile
The first step to composting is determining where you want your compost heap or bin. Try to select an outdoor location with partial shade and plenty of drainage. It’s also important to pick an area that’s easily accessible but removed from animals, including pets and wildlife.
Your pile should be at least 3 feet in width and height, which is a manageable size for most gardeners and ensures that it can retain heat. I dug down about 1.5 feet to start mine. The ground in our area is hard as a rock, so I soaked it with water and liquid sulfur before I started and when I hit hard clay again, soaked it again. Eventually I got there without too much effort. I was lucky the layer of clay was only about a foot deep and gave way to granite underneath so it has good drainage. I’ve also had success building a 3X3 foot box with old pallets. We shall see if the “hole” works.
Heat is produced during the composting process as bacteria break down organic materials. Alternatively, you can use a compost tumbler, which is a container designed to make it easier to rotate and mix your composting materials.
2. Begin adding materials
Once you’ve picked a location for your compost pile, you’re ready to start adding materials. It’s generally recommended to alternate green and brown materials in layers. The term “green materials” refers to items like food and yard scraps, while “brown materials” include carbon-rich items like branches, paper, straw, and wood chips.
Although layering isn’t required, I do it because it’s how I was taught and it makes sense to ensure that the right balance of green and brown materials are in there to optimize the decomposition process.
Start by creating a 4–8-inch (10–20-cm) layer of bulky brown materials, such as twigs, at the bottom of your pile to provide aeration and drainage. Then, alternate layers of green and brown materials until your bin is full. Be sure to add a bit of water to each layer to keep it moist.
3. Turn the pile regularly
I let the layered pile sit for a week or so. After I see it’s warmed up and starting to break down, then I start to turn the pile regularly to ensure efficient composting. You can use a shovel or pitchfork to turn and rotate the materials, which helps distribute air and moisture evenly.
How often you need to turn your compost depends on many factors, including the size of the pile, amount of moisture, and ratio of brown to green materials.
As a general rule of thumb, you should start by turning your pile every 4–7 days. As your compost starts to mature, you may need to turn it less often.
While the pile should be kept moist I find it’s more of a problem if the pile becomes soggy, if this happens I add card board or you can add extra brown materials and turn it more often to remove excess moisture.
4. Use your compost
It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year for your materials to fully decompose, depending on a variety of factors, such as the size of your pile, type of materials used, and moisture levels. Here in Payson during the summer things will quickly break down. I personally don’t compost much during the winter because I don’t have a barrel or compost tumbler. I do put my coffee grounds in my house plants but that’s about it.
I also cover my compost pile with 4-8 inches of hay. I do this to keep the important stuff warm, and to continue the process during the winter. This will also allow enough moisture to seep in while the snow melts. In between snows, I bounce out and remove the hay cover, turn it a couple times, and put back my hay cover.
Turning the pile regularly, keeping it moist, and shredding scraps into smaller pieces can speed the process. I usually stick the “green materials” I’ve gathered for the week in the blender for a couple seconds to give it a good start. This usually consists of banana peels, egg shells, coffee grounds & filters, rotten fruit, old leftover vegetables from the fridge, etc.
When your compost pile is ready to use, the compost should appear dark brown and crumbly, similar to soil. It should also have a rich, earthy smell and be free of any large chunks of material.
You can use compost by mixing it with potting soil, sprinkling it over the surface of your garden, or replacing mulch with it.*
You can also brew your own compost tea by steeping a small amount of compost in water for 24–48 hours. Then, strain the mixture and spray it onto plants to supply beneficial nutrients and enhance the growth of your garden.
*Next time I’ll share with you a mulching technique that will save you a lot of work in your garden.
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