Make Your Own Compost

(Family Features) Some may look at compost as nothing more than a pile of waste, but gardeners know that compost is black gold - a valuable addition to any garden.

Compost improves soil structure, supplies nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, improves and stabilizes soil pH, and reduces water loss, according to the US Composting Council. You can buy compost at any garden center, but a more cost-effective way to get your hands on some black gold is to make it yourself.

Getting Started

You can compost in a bin, but it's not necessary. You do need a site that's at least 3 feet wide by 3 feet long and 3 feet high. Compost piles can be situated in the sun or the shade, but sun helps increase the temperature, which makes the decomposers work faster. If you live in a warmer climate, this will also mean that it will dry out faster, so you need to keep it moist as it heats up.

As for supplies to get the compost started, here's what you need:

  • Brown materials - Carbon-rich materials like straw, fall leaves, dead flowers, corn stalks and shredded newspaper.
  • Green materials - Nitrogen-rich materials like vegetable peels, fruit rinds and other plant-based kitchen waste, grass clippings.
  • Garden soil.

The fastest way to get compost going is to chop or shred your materials - the smaller the pieces, the faster they can decompose - and to layer them.

  • Spread a layer of brown material several inches thick.
  • Add a layer of several inches of green stuff.
  • Add a thin layer of soil.
  • Add a layer of brown material.
  • Moisten the layers (it should feel like a damp sponge).

A well-functioning compost pile will heat up to between 90°F to 140°F at the center. In this warm environment, microbes thrive and start breaking down the materials. Turning the compost as it decomposes will help it break down faster, but it's not required. You can turn the pile whenever it begins to feel cool to the touch.

Within a few weeks, you should have some rich compost. (If you don't turn it, it will take a few months.) Finished compost should be dark brown, resemble soil, and have an earthy smell.

Smell is a concern to those who haven't composted before. If your compost pile has an offensive small, like ammonia or sulfur, it's not working properly. It likely doesn't have enough oxygen, so you need to turn it.

Here are some compostable items:

  • Hay
  • Straw
  • Dried leaves
  • Dried grasses
  • Lawn clippings
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Egg shells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Green garden debris

Never compost:

  • Greasy foods
  • Diseased plants
  • Meat or bones
  • Human, dog or cat waste
  • Noxious weeds

To learn more about composting or making your own compost bin, check out these online resources:

Videos: Composting Made Easy; A Simple Compost Bin
How to Start a Compost Pile
5 Steps to Fast Compost
Master Composter

E-book: Compostology 1-2-3