That compost-driven potager I planned and started back in winter and spring is thriving even during extreme heat thanks to all the compost I used to amend the soil. In a 134 square foot garden, I’ve harvested 75 beets, 20 kohlrabi, 25 turnips, 5 large heads of storage cabbage, 18 pounds of potatoes, more carrots than I could count, daily salads from April to July, endless kale, chard, and mustard, herbs, peas, and more.
Now, one month into summer tomatoes, peppers, more beets, eggplant, okra, melons, chard, sweet potatoes, runner beans, and sunflowers are growing well in the garden. Fall vegetable seeds will go in a month from now so that I can harvest fresh food even into winter.
Oh, and did I mention that I only I spend about 1 hour a week tending the garden. Every couple of weeks, during hot dry periods, I spend an extra hour clearing up weeds and deep watering. I have picked off a few cabbage moth larva and I’ve had a little flea beetle and slug damage to a few leaves. But I’ve had no losses to pests and haven’t done anything to control for pests.
I owe all of this success, not to my own incredible intelligence (I wish), but to nature’s. Using nature’s method of adding fertility, in the form of top applied compost to encourage thriving soil life, this first year garden is doing amazing.
To maintain this kind of performance, I’ll need to add several inches of compost annually.
Making compost is an incredibly satisfying act of environmental love. Knowing that you are putting what would otherwise be treated as “waste” to work in your garden is both soul and soil enriching.
There are endless ways to make compost. Before you get carried away by all the exciting compost bin plans out there, though, I want to make sure you know that you don’t need an elaborate system to make compost. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You also don’t need to spend more than a few minutes every so often to make a whole lot of compost.
Compost is nature’s gift to us. Nature doesn’t care if you have a 2 bin system or a 3 bin system. Nature doesn’t demand that you use a multi-tiered vermicompost tower or inoculated bran and and an anaerobic container to do your composting.
Those things are tools that we choose to make compost on our terms. Depending on your circumstance, some tools may be useful or they might be a waste of your time. That’s for you to decide.
Nature, though, only needs a few things from you to convert your waste into something useful in the garden.
- Organic Matter
- Appropriate Moisture
This is a website devoted to simple homesteading. So, I am not going to be covering all the complicated ways to make compost. Instead, I am going to share some very simple, minimal work ways to help nature do what nature wants to do anyways.
How to Compost
Now, here’s how I make basic compost.
Step 1: Create Drainage
Make a first layer with a few inches of twigs and branches to elevate your pile off the ground for good drainage.
Step 2: Add Browns
You’ll be alternately layering 2 to 3 parts dried browns to 1 part greens until your pile is 4 feet tall and wide. But, you want to start with a good base of browns to absorb excess moisture from your greens.
For browns, I prefer straw or mulched leaves collected in fall. Shredded paper and bits of cardboard also work.
Step 3: Alternate Greens and Browns
Now, you’ll start the layering process by adding 1 part greens to every 2-3 part browns. Keep your greens layers no more than 2 inches deep for good airflow.
Greens are things like kitchen scraps, animal manure, grass clippings, or crop residues from the garden. As a rule of thumb, any plant parts harvested when they were green and actively growing or any animal by-products are counted as greens.
If you are using bokashi to expand your compost options, add that between layers of browns. Also, put it toward the bottom of the pile to discourage pests (just in case it’s not fully bokashi-ed).
Note: Your collection buckets might contain some browns like paper towels or junk mail. If you have lots of browns in there already lean toward 2 parts browns. If you have very few browns in your collection buckets, go for 3 parts browns.
Step 4: Repeat Until Complete, Then Water
Keep the top of the pile covered with a tarp, or other water proof protection, so it doesn’t get wet until it reaches full-size. Make sure the sides are not covered because you still need airflow to keep your pile from becoming anaerobic.
When your pile is about 4 feet tall and wide, water the entire pile until it feels like a wet but not soppy sponge. This will activate composting.
Step 5: Cover and Wait
After watering, top your pile with several inches of dry browns as a moisture barrier. Then, let the pile sit for uncovered 4 weeks.
If you happen to have heavy rain in the forecast put the tarp back on before it rains and remove it after the rain. Otherwise leave the pile open for good air flow.
Step 6: Turn and Burn
Now you need to turn your pile. This requires using a pitch fork to move the contents of the pile, fork load by fork load, to a new location.
Usually this new location is adjacent to your pile so you don’t have to move your pile very far. Also, you’ll want to layer some branches and browns on bottom like you did in steps 1 and 2 before you start forking to promote good drainage.
Try to fold the outsides of the pile in so they get to be on the inside in this new pile. You may also need to water your pile again so it feels like a wet but not sopping wet sponge.
Within 1-2 days of turning your pile, put your hand near, but not inside the pile. (Your pile could get to 160ºF, so don’t touch it!) Make sure you can feel lots of heat emanating from the pile. If not, then pour some fresh urine the pile as you can and check again in a day or two.
Step 7: Have Patience
Now, you just need to let your compost sit around for a year before you use it. That will allow any pathogens to time out. It will take care of some toxins such as minimal quantities of pesticides and herbicides that might have drifted into your lawn when your neighbor used those chemicals.
That time also gives all your compost critters a chance to decompose most of what’s in your pile without you having to sift a lot later.
Carbon to Nitrogen Calculations
Down the road, when you want to get a more balanced compost to control nutrients in your soil, understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios can be really helpful. However, I recommend you use this basic method based on parts of “browns and greens” a couple of times before you move up to fancy compost.
When you are ready for using carbon to nitrogen calculations to make even better compost, then head over MorningChores.com and look for the compost calculator I helped create.
A Few More Thoughts on Composting
Now that you know how easy making compost can be, there are a few other things for you to think about.
Turning The Pile
If you want to make compost quickly, you can turn your pile more often. The problem with doing this is that you attract mostly high-temperature loving compost bacteria to your pile. Those bacteria are great for decomposing things in a hurry. But since your soil temperatures are not going to be that high, they won’t do much for your soil and your plants when you put fast-made compost in your bed.
I normally turn a pile only once. Sometimes if stuff doesn’t seem to be breaking down or I don’t get noticeable heat when I turn the pile then I may turn it a 2nd or even 3rd time for good measure. Overall though, less turning and longer aging tend to be more beneficial for plants in my experience.
I might shock a few people by saying this. But here goes.
I don’t sift my compost. Ever.
Usually the bits that aren’t fully decomposed after a year of aging disappear within a few weeks of spreading compost on soil. So, I’ve just never worried about them.
Every so often I’ll come across a clump of stuff in a compost pile that just didn’t break down because it stayed too wet. In that case, I break it apart and throw it into my next compost pile or I’ll give it to my worms for expedited processing.
You’ll notice that I only had you check for heat after you turned your pile. Other instruction sets have you check it each time, which is fine. But, I know lots of first time composters who don’t get heat in their first pile. It may be too wet, or wet only in certain places, the layers might be to light or too heavy.
By the time that stuff has sat around and melded for a month and attracted bacteria and fungi, then when you turn the pile and moisten it a second time, it almost always ignites. So, that’s why I don’t worry about a temperature check until I turn the pile.
– Compost Thermometer
Also, if your pile feels hot when you hover your hand near it, then it’s doing it’s thing just fine. However, if you want to be precise, get yourself a compost thermometer and take a reading. Temperatures between 135-165ºF are ideal.
– Moisture Meter
If you like the idea of using a thermometer, then you might also want to consider a moisture meter too. Aiming for about 60% water content in your pile is also ideal for active decomposition.
Bins are totally optional. However, they can be beneficial if you have neighbors who don’t want to see your unsightly pile, or if plan to compost things that rodents and raccoons might love to eat too.
If you are going to the trouble of setting up a multi-bin system, I suggest that you use hardwood or paint your parts so they last a while. Put roofs on them so you can better control moisture. And give yourself room to store lots of browns so you can make use of all your neighbors leaves too.
Skip the elevated bins that you have to turn daily. They seem simple. But I assure you a pile like the one described above will save you lots of work and frustration while making you more compost.
I’ll cover some more composting information in upcoming posts. But, now between vermicompost, bokashi, and basic compost, you have a great repertoire of tools to start really improving your soil.
Now, go perform your own act of environmental love by turning your waste into garden goodness!