Shut Up and Compost

For the new year, resolve to finally cut down on waste and feed your garden. Hot composting is easier than you think.

Man holding a clump of compost in his hands.

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When I talk to hobbyist gardeners, evangelizing them on the gospel of composting, I’m always surprised to discover how many people seem to think it requires a supernatural ability or expensive materials.

Gardening itself is a much more intense commitment than composting. You can put as little or as much into composting as you’d like, and the result is an environmentally friendly fertilizer that completes the natural cycle of your home. Start composting today, and you could have some black gold in time for the first spring planting.

Begin saving food scraps from your kitchen. You can put them in a fancy container purchased just for this use, or you can throw them into any old bucket with a lid. Avoid putting meats, dairy, or excess salt or oil in your bin, but most everything else will break down nicely:

  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds (along with the filter)
  • Vegetable cuttings
  • Fruit rinds/apple cores
  • Beer/wine
  • Bread
  • Loose leaf tea

When you’ve got a full kitchen bin, take it outside, toss it on the ground, and cover it with dead leaves and twigs and a layer of soil.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do to make nutrient-rich compost for your garden.

This method, called “cold composting,” can take several months or even years to completely break down your ingredients, but it will eventually work. There are several things you can do to speed up the process.

Composting works best when you have the perfect amounts of carbon, nitrogen, air, and water. Carbon comes from dead sticks, leaves, and paper. Nitrogen from food scraps, green plant scraps, and manure. Turning over a compost pile regularly introduces air. Water-wise, the rule of thumb is to keep it as wet as a wrung-out sponge as often as possible.

Composting is like a constant science experiment. It is difficult to mess it up royally, but the better you combine all of the elements, the faster you will have the good stuff.

A good ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 2:1. If you can satisfy this mixture, you should be able to practice “hot composting,” in which your compost pile heats up (usually to about 140° F) as microorganisms work to break down the materials.

As much as possible, try to break up or shred the materials you put into your compost pile. Sawdust and grass clippings work well because they are already broken down into a size more manageable for microorganisms. If you have chickens (or other vegetarian livestock), adding their manure (along with the bedding) onto a compost pile is a surefire way to heat it up.

For a backyard garden, two composting beds (about one cubic meter each) will be sufficient to handle your weeds, leaves, and leftovers. You can construct the walls with wood pallets lined with fine mesh screen. Just fill one over time, use a shovel to chop and mix it up, then leave it to cook while you fill the other. Turn the full pile inside out weekly, and it should resemble uniform topsoil in one to three months. For a smaller setup, consider buying a tumbling composter. I used one of these for years while living in small city duplexes, and I was able to compost all of my kitchen scraps to feed some gardening boxes.

In addition to feeding your garden with nutrients and microorganisms, compost improves the structure of your soil, increasing its capacity for water-retention and aeration. Just by taking a few small steps in the winter months, you can set yourself up for a successful garden all year.

Do:

  • Allow compost containing manure to cure for a few weeks before adding it to the garden
  • Consider a thermometer to monitor the temperature of your compost pile
  • Try to keep food scraps in the center of the pile so you don’t attract pests

Don’t:

  • Put non-compostable materials like plastic and metal into your pile
  • Put materials in your compost that have been contaminated with harmful chemicals like cleaners or pesticide
  • Put dog or cat feces into your compost

Featured image: Shutterstock

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