by Paulette Mouchet
Originally published in The Rose Garden newsletter, September, 2002.
Many gardeners make compost at home then spread it on the surface of their gardens as mulch. The basic process of making compost consists of creating a pile of vegetative stuff, keeping it moist, and keeping it well aerated. That's it. Heat and beneficial organisms already in the vegetative stuff will do the rest. Depending on the amount of heat your pile generates and type of vegetative stuff you start with, your compost will be ready in as little as 60 days or as long as a year.
Creating (and Containing) the Pile
Let's start with containing the pile since the type of container will affect how quickly your compost will form and how much maintenance the pile requires. There are as many ways to contain a compost pile as there are gardeners. If you don't believe me, take a look at Composters.com. Their Web site lists more than 16 hot-method compost bins and 13 vermicomposters! Some gardeners don't use a container at all. You may have to experiment to find what works best for you.
One of the easiest containers is made from four wood pallets. Stand them on end and fasten the edges together with wire or cord to make a box. This container will not allow your pile to develop as much heat as other containers will. Less heat means the vegetative stuff will decompose more slowly, weed seeds and other seeds may not be killed in the process, and flies may breed in your pile.
Another easy-to-make container is a round, plastic garbage can with a locking lid. Drill approximately 30, evenly spaced, 1/4-inch holes on the sides and bottom of the can. This type of container allows your pile to generate a lot of heat (up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit) and will produce compost much faster than a lower-heat method. Fly eggs and weed seeds will be killed along with beneficial earthworms.
Other containers include plastic orbs, metal drums on geared rollers, and bales of straw. They will all work to contain your pile. The most important thing about the container is that it allows you to easily aerate the pile.
Now, on to the stuff you can compost. Remember, compost is anything vegetative that has been rotted or decayed. Your compost pile can include:
animal manure (from herbivores only)
alfalfa hay as well as grain hay (such as oat or barley)
fruits and vegetables
Don't use bones, raw or cooked meat, dairy products, fats, or dog or cat waste.
To form your pile, start with a layer of dry or "brown" vegetative stuff such as hay or leaves. How thick a layer? Six inches or so is a rule of thumb. Use a garden hose with a sprayer attached to moisten the layer until it is the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Follow the brown layer with a layer of wet or "green" vegetative stuff such as fresh manure or grass clippings (approximately 6 inches thick). Moisten this layer, if necessary, until it is the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Keep layering brown stuff then green stuff until you fill your container to the desired level. If you don't have enough material to make 6-inch layers, don't worry. Your pile will compost anyway. If you don't have any dry hay or leaves, don't worry. Simply make layers of the material you have and wet it down. The wonderful thing about making compost is that you can use most any vegetative ingredients, in most any proportions, and stick them in most any container, and it will still work!
Keeping the Pile Moist
It's important to keep your compost pile moist. A dry pile won't generate any heat and can't decompose. Check your pile regularly and add water when necessary to keep it the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.
Occasionally, a pile will get too wet, which also stops the decay process. If your winter/spring brings torrential rains and your pile is not in a closed container, you may need to protect it with sheets of plastic. If your efforts fail and the pile gets soggy anyway, mix in additional brown matter such as hay or leaves and vigorously aerate it (see below).
Aerating the Pile
The bacteria and other organisms that breakdown organic material into compost require oxygen to do their work. When a compost pile sits, the weight of the material squeezes out the air and no decomposition can take place. A sour-smelling compost pile is one that has run out of oxygen. To ensure that your pile has enough oxygen for decomposition, you must regularly aerate it. You can save a sour-smelling compost pile with vigorous aeration. (You may have to divide the bad pile into two or three piles, adjust the pH, and add fresh vegetative material, but let's assume you properly aerate your pile in the first place and don't get into this mess!)
If your container is made from wired-together pallets, untie the front pallet to give you access to the front of the pile. Using a long-tined fork, turn the entire pile at least once a week. Add water if necessary and replace the front pallet. The physical demands of this type of pile are one reason many gardeners prefer the plastic container method.
If your container is a plastic garbage can, simply lay it on its side and roll it around. You might need a rope or stretch-cord to keep the lid on during this process. After righting the container, add water if necessary. Most folks find it easier to roll their compost than turn it with a pitch fork. Plastic containers, which generate a lot of heat, should be turned every 2 to 3 days.
For real ease in turning your pile, consider a container like the ComposTumbler. It's a big metal drum with a geared system that makes turning it a breeze. The manufacturer claims it will make compost in 14 days (very high-heat method!).
How Do I Know When My Compost Is Ready?
Compost is ready with the temperature of the pile drops to that of the surrounding air. Finished compost is crumbly, rich, and warm. It smells sweet. When in doubt as to when your pile is ready, purchase a bag of well-composted steer manure to use for comparison.
Image from Wikipedia.