Composting doesn’t have to be expensive nor too time consuming. It’s also one of my favorite activities around the garden.
One of the first things I learned to make on this homesteading journey was black gold, aka compost. Even after years of working in the garden, composting still my favorite part with its rich, earthy smells, the wiggly earthworms, and the delightfully warm heat that can easily be seen and felt on a cool spring afternoon. It’s also the most important component of a strong, healthy, water retaining garden.
Black, earthy compost increases water retention, replenishes nutrients, improves drainage, and can even act as a mulch. Yet, many resources make the process of turning kitchen scraps, garden waste, and manure into black gold seem too time consuming and complicated. Fortunately, composting is really a simple matter of helping organic matter do what organic matter does best—decompose. Just follow a few simple guidelines and allow the process to do the work for you.
Location. Location. Location.
The first step is site placement. Select an easily accessible spot that you can get to quickly. Placed too far and you’ll find yourself deciding the trash bin or disposal makes more sense than walking all the way to the compost pile. Another downside to placing the pile too far away is the need to transport finished compost to the garden. Buckets, wagons, and shovels get heavy, so do yourself a favor and place the pile as close as you can to the garden. Done properly, compost won’t stink or destroy the aesthetics of the area, so don’t worry about people seeing it.
Don’t let it all hang out. Or do. It’s up to you.
Many choose to compost in a simple pile without bins, fencing, or other enclosures. The pros to open piles is no extra expense, easy to relocate and to water, easy to add to, and leave nothing behind when the pile is depleted. Cons tend to be more of an aesthetic issue, as some feel wooden bins or neatly stacked blocks are more attractive. Also, piles do tend to heat a little slower and may dry out a bit faster than those that are enclosed. However, the downsides are usually minimal, making either approach quite acceptable.
C:N Ratio Is important but not something to fret over.
The most important aspect to creating quality compost lies in the carbon to nitrogen ratio of ingredients. Creating the correct C:N ratio (usually touted as 3:1) allows things to break down quickly, without odor and without attracting varmints. Generally speaking, ingredients fall into two categories: brown, or carbon rich items and green, or nitrogenous items. The rule of thumb is anything brown, crunchy, dry, or brittle is usually a brown. Think paper, straw, dried stalks, dried leaves. Nitrogen is provided by green materials such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps, livestock bedding, and manure.
While the C:N ratio is important, don’t stress over getting it exact. Many resources recommend measuring materials or even weighing each bucket before it goes to the pile, yet eyeballing works just as well. A guideline that I’ve found helpful is to add more browns when the pile seems too wet and more greens when it looks more like a pile of leaves or straw than a composting mix of materials.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a supply of livestock manure, you’re in luck. Most manures, while considered a nitrogen source, have nearly the perfect C:N ratio without any additional work on your part. If, however, you don’t have access to manure, several shovels of good garden soil intermixed with the pile will work nearly as well to keep the balance intact. Again, you’re looking for a pile that looks balanced between dirt/manure/kitchen scraps and brown, dry leaves, stalks, and straw.
To turn or not to turn. Again, it’s up to you.
The time consuming part of composting is in the daily or weekly turning that’s recommended for achieving the fastest compost possible. However, a pile will decompose entirely on its own even if you don’t turn it a single time—it’ll just take longer to complete the process.
If you take the hands-off approach, build an airy layer at the base of the pile by stacking brown materials such as straw, corn or okra stalks to allow good airflow which aides in faster composting. Then, simply layer or mix the rest of the ingredients until your pile is 3’ high. Finish by covering with several inches of straw to retain moisture and heat. After a week or so, you’ll find a steaming interior already breaking down materials into compost.
Composting can be as easy or as complicated as you’d like. However, to make compost in the easiest manner possible, select the right ingredients, layer well, and cover. Within a few months, you’ll be harvesting black gold ready to be added to your garden.