Making Compost the Easy Way

New gardeners stress about the right composting materials, the best container -- and once they remember those stories they heard about taking a compost pile's temperature, it's all over.

By , Columnist

USDA

Certain topics sound scary to the beginning gardener -- bare root planting, plant propagation, and making compost. New gardeners stress about the right composting materials, the best container -- and once they remember those stories they heard about taking a compost pile's temperature, it's all over.

Here's the secret. Composting is really easy. To help prove that to you, I've enlisted the aid of Chris McLaughlin, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting.

Choose a spot for the compost pile close to your house (so you can take kitchen scraps out in winter weather). Make a simple pile on the ground, enclose it on three sides, or buy a compost bin or tumbler. 

McLaughlin says, "If you use upright materials to contain your compost pile, such as a wire circle or even wood pallets, add vining plants like beans, peas, cucumbers, mini pumpkins, morning glories, pink jasmine, or sweet peas at the base of the structure. You'll not only beautify and disguise the pile, but the plants can take full advantage of the compost, too!"

What goes on the pile? Your eggshells, and raw fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps without fats. 

  • No salad with dairy dressing 
  • No vegetables cooked in fats
  • No meat or cheese 

When my kitchen scraps container is full I carry it to the compost pile. I toss the scraps on the pile, then cover them with an equal amount of straw I keep handy next to the pile. Straw not hay (hay has seeds that will sow themselves all over your garden). Get straw at a feed store or garden center.

If it's dry weather I spray some water on the compost pile after adding the straw. Composting is the active decomposition of plant matter, and all the work is done by micro and macro-organisms. To do their jobs they need water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. 

McLaughlin suggests, "An easy rule of thumb is to add about half carbon material (browns) and half nitrogen material (greens) to the compost pile. Make sure the pile is damp all the way through, and keep the air flowing by turning it once a week."

Greens are your kitchen scraps, lawn cuttings, or leaves you just pruned. NOT WEEDS. Unless you have a fast compost pile (a bit more complicated -- that's where the compost thermometer comes in) the weed seeds won't decompose.

Browns are straw, dead leaves -- anything brown in the garden. Branches take a long time to break down, so don't add them to your first pile.

Build the pile in layers as you have equal amounts of material. If you have an open-air pile, stop when you reach a 3-foot cube size. Keep turning it once a week. In about a year you will have crumbly compost with an earthy aroma.

I lied. There is a hard part to composting. It's deciding which parts of your garden get your first batch of compost as a fabulous mulch.

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Charlotte Germane dishes the dirt on gardening in newsletters, radio shows, newspapers, and blogs. Follow her on Twitter to get the latest trowel-full of news. She live-blogged the Royal Wedding for The Morton Report and has series of royalty columns here.

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