Composting is the breaking down of organic matter into a fertile conditioner for your garden’s soil. Think of it as probiotics for your plants. As organic matter decomposes, microbes and life-giving nitrogen increase. After a few months, what is created is rich, earthy food for your flowers, garden fruits and vegetables.
Composting isn’t just for summer. It’s a year-round way to provide nutrients for the soil in your garden. Winter does slow the decomposition of the materials in your compost pile or bin. But if your compost system is in a sheltered area, it’ll do just fine. Composting the year ’round is very possible.
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What is Composting?
Composting is the breaking down of organic matter into a fertile conditioner for your garden’s soil. Think of it as probiotics for your plants. As organic matter decomposes, microbes and life-giving nitrogen increase. After a few months, what is created is rich, earthy food for your flowers, garden fruits and vegetables. Composting is a wonderful way to make use of things that would normally go to a landfill. It does essentially what nature does – breaks down organic matter over time and uses it to feed the soil.
What Can I Compost?
Kitchen scraps are perfect for composting. Make further use of those vegetable peels, eggshells, and used coffee grounds (including the paper filter) by turning them into fertilizer for your plants. Shred used paper towels, napkins, and newspaper to add to a compost pile. Dry products such as newspaper, brown leaves, straw or hay help balance the moisture levels in compost and discourage mold.
If you bag your lawn clippings from mowing, put the clipping in the compost pile.
Green and Brown Organic Materials
You want both “green” and “brown” organic material in your compost pile. Kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and lawn clippings are called “green” materials. They’re moist, generate heat, and break down quickly. Brown leaves, hay, straw, and animal bedding are dry and are called “brown” organic materials. Being dry, they break down slowly. Aim for a ratio of 4 parts brown materials to 1 part green materials in your compost.
It’s important to compost wood chip animal bedding before putting it in garden soil. On top of the soil as mulch, wood chips are fine. But in the soil, undecomposed wood chips rob the soil of nitrogen. This is a disaster for your plants. So if you raise chickens, rabbits, or any livestock (cattle, sheep, hogs, horses), be sure and compost the bedding and let it decompose well before using it.
What NOT to Compost
Don’t compost meat or fat products. First, meat and fat attract unwanted animal attention. Second, the bacteria doing most of the work in a compost pile are aerobic bacteria. The bacteria breaking down meat and fat matter are anaerobic. These two types of bacteria work differently in the decomposition process. Aerobic bacteria give off heat. Heat is good in compost as it speeds up the decomposition process. Anaerobic bacteria give off little heat. This slows the decomposition process and creates a “fragrant” unwanted mess rather than the sweet, earthy compost you desire.
Don’t compost cat litter. Cat waste may contain toxoplasmosis and compost won’t generate enough heat to kill it. Additionally, clay cat litter won’t break down in a compost pile. Dog waste from the yard is fine, though.
How Do I Compost?
Composting just takes a good spot on your property to either make a pile or set up a bin and consistently adding to the pile. I set up some extra landscaping bricks in the tree line to the west of our house. It’s a simple, low 3-sided bin with one side open for me to use the wheelbarrow to dump used bedding cleaned from the chicken coop. The three sides help keep the materials in one place. Being behind the pine trees, I can’t see it from my house. It gets shade most of the day with about 3 hours of sun in the evening. It cost nothing extra to make and works great.
To start composting, choose an area on your property as I described above. With a shovel, dig out an area the size you want your compost pile to be about 4-6 inches deep. This gives you a good “holding place” and some dirt to place on top of your compost materials to help hold in moisture and start the composting process.
Surround your composting area with bricks, large rocks or a homemade pallet bin if you like. This step isn’t necessary, though. Add 4 parts brown material to one part green material. Wet it down to get the nitrogen and decomposition going, put a couple of shovels full of dirt on it, and let nature take its course.
Pile, Bin, or Compost Tumbler Method?
I’ve never used a composting bin or a closed composting tumbler. I live in the country and don’t need to. But an urban or suburban person wanting to compost will find a bin or tumbler a great solution to compost without creating an eyesore. Since I have no experience with either of these methods, I’ll let this gardener share the pros and cons of both the bin method and the tumbler method.
A good spot for composting is one where there is shade for at least half of the day. Shade helps keep the compost pile from drying out too quickly. Moisture is needed to generate heat. An over-dry compost pile won’t decompose. An over-wet compost pile will just mold and turn to goo.
I keep a Rachel Ray Garbage Bowl in my kitchen cabinet under my sink. In it, I put the day’s kitchen scraps the chickens won’t eat (like coffee ground, eggshells, onion peels, orange peels, etc) then take them out to the compost pile every other day.
Maintaining Compost Throughout the Year
A compost pile is low-maintenance. Consistently add brown and green materials to it throughout the year. During dry spells, add a little water to it to aid decomposition. Turn your pile with a pitchfork about once a month to mix everything well and get fresh material into the older material to help it break down. If it’s winter and your pile is frozen, just wait until it thaws to give it a turn. It’ll be fine.
Your compost is ready when it looks like rich, brown dirt. It will have an earthy fragrance that’s not unpleasant. Some partially decomposed material in your compost at the time it’s put on the garden will be ok. It’ll continue to break down when tilled into your garden soil.
My Composting Schedule
I take kitchen scraps to the compost pile all year long. If my pile is covered with snow, no big deal. The scraps just get tossed onto the snow. It’ll melt eventually. I stop putting animal bedding in the compost pile in late fall. My chicken coop gets a good cleaning in November to prepare the ladies for winter. As needed during the winter I top their old bedding with fresh bedding, then clean it all out in spring.
In the Fall
The reason to stop adding animal bedding in the fall is that wood shavings need a lot of time to break down. They’ll be already decomposing from being in the chicken coop mixed with the chicken waste. I don’t want fresh wood shavings in my garden dirt to strip my soil of nitrogen. Also in fall, I add plenty of brown leaves because I won’t be adding them the rest of the winter either. They’ll be under the snow.
So fall is when I add plenty of leaves and animal bedding, then stop adding them for winter. Winter is when I add just kitchen scraps, eggshells, and coffee grounds.
In the Spring
In the spring, I shovel into my wheelbarrow all the compost in the pile and spread it all over the gardens (I have two vegetable gardens). Then I till it into the soil. Next, I clean out the winter’s bedding and waste from the chicken coop and place it into the compost area and wet it down if there’s no rain in the immediate forecast. This begins a new compost pile. Kitchen scraps continue to be placed there and lawn clippings are added throughout the summer. The pile gets turned with a pitchfork every month. I add used chicken bedding throughout the summer as well.
Then in the fall, I add the used chicken bedding from the final fall cleaning and brown leaves and the cycle continues.
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