Composting for Beginners
Composting is a way of making your own fertilizer and mulch from stuff you were going to throw out anyway. It is a natural process that turns garbage into nutrient-rich soil. Composting happens in nature all the time. It is the process of air and water mixing with dead plant matter to make a hospitable environment for microbes which break it all down.
The basics: a compost bin or heap must be at least three cubic feet in order to work. Anything smaller will not generate the heat needed to break down the organic material. Your compost needs to be turned and mixed at minimum every three days in order to mix the microbes into every part of your heap.
You can buy composting bins at hardware stores or you can build your own. (A bin is not absolutely necessary – you can use haybales or bricks built up in a square to house your heap, or nothing at all.) You will also need a pitch fork, which is the handiest tool to turn, break up and stir your compost.
Good materials for your compost heap include: Grass cuttings, non-woody garden prunings, leaves, flower and vegetable remains; vegetable peelings and leaves, fruit peelings and cores, cooked table scraps, tea leaves, coffee grounds, egg shells, stale bread, paper and cardboard, sawdust and wood shavings, animal manure, woodfire ash, seaweed. Do not use: Branches, roots (unless chipped). Pine needles, cypress clippings, rose cuttings and other garden wastes with thorns, weed seeds, bulbs and runners, garden wastes recently sprayed with pesticides, meat and dairy scraps, toilet waste, used paper tissues, diseased animal carcasses and plant material, treated pine sawdust and shavings, metals, glass, plastics.
All materials you use will need to be chopped or cut up into as small pieces as possible. Spread the chopped materials in layers 3 to 5 inches thick. Start with a layer of brown (dry materials) then add a layer of green (wet, nitrogen-rich materials). Atop each brown-green section, add an inch or two of manure or garden soil. Boost nutrients by adding a shovelful of wood ash, rock phosphate, lime, granite dust, blood meal, bone meal or greensand to each completed section. Moisten each layer of the pile as you go, using a gentle spray.
Your compost is ready to use when it’s dark in color, has a rich, earthy scent and the original material isn’t distinguishable, having decomposed. It can be used as a top dressing on the soil during the growing season, added in around the bases of plants, where irrigation and soil animals will slowly incorporate it into the soil. On lawns, sprinkle sifted compost as a top dressing in the spring to improve the soil for better grass growth. It is also fine to top-dress houseplants occasionally with small handfuls of finished compost. Compost can also be left on the surface as a mulch around landscape and garden plants.