Vegetable season is in full swing! Tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, peppers, zucchini, carrots, onions and herbs are getting taller and stronger by the day in preparation for harvesting! Also, with cooler weather on the way right now is the best time to give these plants an extra boost of nutrients so they can produce bountiful yields for you and nourish the soil for next season. Organic compost is the best way to provide your veggie plants with the delicate balance of nutrients and minerals they need. Many farmers markets and garden centers carry these types of products but nothing is more satisfying than walking over to your own compost bin, digging out a shovel full of beautiful organic compost and using it to feed your plants! So, today I am going to talk about the basics of composting and how easy it is for you and your family to start your own compost pile!
What exactly is compost?
Well, compost is the result of the breakdown of organic materials. Basically it is what happens when food, paper, eggshells, etc. rot and decompose. Organic materials are made of nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous, potassium, basically all those elements you learned about in chemistry class. When broken down to their most basic form they create a ridiculously nutrient dense “humus” or compost that you can use to naturally and organically fertilize your flower and vegetable plants! A few other benefits of composting your plants is that organic compost acts as a natural pesticide, improves soil condition, reduces the need to water you plants up to 20% and also reduces the amount of trash your household produces.
Red Bell Pepper
How to get started
Begin by finding a shady spot in your backyard. If the compost pile is in direct sunlight it will dry out much more quickly, take longer to decompose and most likely attract flies. You can either purchase a pre-made compost barrel or start your pile right on the ground. If you go the free route of starting it on the ground make sure to dig up the first few inches of sod, roots and soil so you start with a clean base. The next step is to begin gathering your materials. For proper decomposition you will need to add the correct ratios of nitrogen materials and carbon materials. So, next to where your compost pile will be you will need to start two more piles: one for brown materials (carbon) and one for green materials (nitrogen):
Brown materials (carbon)
- Cardboard (not shiny)
- Paper towel and toilet paper rolls
- Dryer lint
- Coffee filters
- End of the season flowers ( no weeds)
- Dry leaves
- Paper egg cartons
- Paper (not shiny)
Green materials (nitrogen)
- Fruit and vegetable cores and peels
- Coffee grounds
- All non-meat food scraps
- Pet or human hair
- Manure from plant eating animals (you may be able to purchase this at your local garden center)
- Trimmings from your flower of vegetable gardens
***Never put bones, dairy, meat, fat, weeds or any plants treated with pesticide in a compost pile
Build your pile
Now that you have your pile of browns and greens and your fresh spot to start composting you can begin to build your pile. You are going to layer it like a lasagna so your materials are spread out in the correct ratio: you want 2/3 of your pile to be made of brown material and 1/3 of your pile to be made of green material. Begin by laying 4-6” of chopped and mixed brown materials (the smaller the pieces and better mixed they are the quicker they will decompose). Then add a 2-3” layer of chopped and mixed green materials and sprinkle it with a handful of garden soil. Once you have your first layers in place you will want to mix it well. You can do this by using a pitchfork or garden shovel; then add water until the consistency feels like a wet sponge. Continue layering in this manner until you go through all of your organic material. Give the pile one last mix and then cover it with black plastic (use rocks or bricks to keep it from blowing away). The plastic creates heat and humidity which will help the pile break down more quickly and efficiently without drying out.
How to maintain your compost pile
Each week you are going to want to “tumble” the pile. Basically you want to turn the contents so what was on the bottom of the pile is now on the top. If you notice the pile is becoming dry add water until it returns to that “spongy” consistency I talked about earlier. This is also the best time to add any new scraps to the pile. To do so dig out a hole in the center, add the contents and then cover them up. The center is basically the engine of the pile: it produces heat that aids decomposition. Some established compost piles have been known to register at 80 degrees in the center during 30 degree weather! Making sure to tumble your pile and add to it each week not only helps the decomposition process but it gives you a chance to fix any problems that may arise. For example, if you notice that you pile is giving off a foul odor the best solution is to mix in more carbon materials (cardboard, paper or dry leaves). Or if you notice that your pile is not decomposing it would be a good idea to add more water. On occasion you may notice pieces of food strewn about your yard, that is a sign the little critters are getting into you pile and looking for food. The best solution to this problem is to make sure that when you add food scraps you put them deep into the center of the pile where their smell is masked to animals that want to use your compost pile as a buffet!
With diligent care of your compost pile you will be able to add natural, organic compost to your garden in no time (which will yield bigger, better, more nutritious fruit)! Once the pile begins to take on the consistency of potting soil, has broken down all materials beyond recognition and has been reduced to half its original size you will want to stop adding to it and use your pile strictly for fertilizing the garden. If you want to continue composting just start a new pile! Composting is something fun that the whole family can do together. Collecting materials and running them out to the compost pile is a perfect chore for the kiddos, not to mention it’s a great chemistry lesson! Composting is a great way to lower the amount of waste your family throws out each week and will give your gardens an organic boost!
Our backyard garden!
Do you have a compost pile in your yard? What tips and tricks can you share for those new to composting?