Making compost is a fairly simple matter and is the first step in the gardening process. If you are starting a new garden, establishing a compost pile is the very first thing to do. It is good to start composting a year before you start the garden. Here, we are starting some new garden areas to start using next year, and are piling up all sorts of vegetation for these areas. There are piles of leaves, weeds, and ferns.
Compost is black gold for the garden, and is invaluable in getting new soil productive, as well as for side dressing established plants. It conditions soil, adds nutrients, and can be used as mulch.
There are myths about making compost. One is that compost requires a bin or other enclosed area. Another is that weeds shouldn't be added to a compost pile. Neither is true.
A compost pile can be started as a simple pile on the ground; a bin or enclosure is not needed. We tried a hay bale enclosure one year, but found that the hay became a breeding area for slugs. The bales were full of them and it was nasty, disgusting, and gross to say the least. We have also used one of those round black plastic bins that are commonly sold as a fundraising effort through local organizations. We are happy to have contributed to the cause, and the bin worked out better than hay. But we abandoned it after discovering several families of well-fed mice comfortably ensconced in the finished compost at the bottom.
As for weeds, they are essential composting material and should not be trashed outside of the garden. Weeds, as they grow, extract nutrients from the soil, and those should be returned. I've added large quantities of weeds, especially dandelions, to compost piles over the years, and have never had dandelion or other weed infestation as a result. Our compost piles do not grow weeds. Oddly, tomato seeds seem to survive the heat of the pile, and we often have several tomato plants sprouting. This year a potato is growing.
There are other aspects of composting that are worth paying attention to. One is that when assembling a compost heap it should be made at least three feet across and three feet deep. A new heap can be started smaller and added to, but may not be fully effective. Really big piles can be too much work to turn. Three foot piles seem to work well for both the breakdown process, and for turning.
Another fact is that a combination of browned stuff with green stuff is what gets the pile to cook. I often save a pile of last fall’s leaves to layer with freshly picked weeds. The green and brown combination creates heat and the pile, if it is evenly moist but not wet, will actually ccok on the inside. This burns out seeds, and facilitates the break down process. Water the pile if it seems to be drying out. It should be kept evenly moist, but not wet.
In hot summer weather a pile can break down in as little as two weeks. It helps to turn the pile several times to mix it and bring the bottom stuff to the top. Turning a pile is easy. Keep an unused area next to the pile. Using a four-prong cultivator (a hand tool), pull the pile into the empty space and leave it there. At the next turning, pull the pile back onto the previous area.
Having the pile directly on the ground is essential so it can be worked by earthworms and beneficial bacteria. The pile will attract plenty of worms; there is no need to buy them. There is also no need to buy bags of worm castings for your garden. Your finished compost will have plenty already.
We never turn compost in the winter, and it stacks up and becomes anerobic. In spring it is gooky and stinky. After it is turned to let some air in, the odor disappears and the compost returns to normal.
Finished compost is black. Any color in the pile that is lighter than black is unfinished compost. Unfinished bits can be pulled out and used in a new pile. Use the finished compost as side dressing by your plants, spread it on garden beds after fall harvest, or work it into the soil. -jmm