One of the most basic and most confusing components of gardening can be soil amendments. There are fertilizers and meals, composts and mulches with several categories within each and more. A lot of gardeners will insist that you absolutely must get out your chemistry kit or collect samples and pay a lab to test each area of your garden so that you know precisely what to add for which plants. I’m not going to knock that method, it’s really precise, tells you right away if there are any glaring problems in your soil and gives you a really straight forward way to best amend your soil. I do plan on taking advantage of these resources in the future but so far I have not. For now, I have been going on how my soil looks, feels and smells to make an educated guess about what it needs. The first thing I add when working in any wimpy looking soil is generous amounts of compost. The difference in the health of a garden bed after a good compost addition is often night and day. Compost adds all kinds of good organic matter that keeps the soil from compacting, leaving room for air and allowing plants to easily put out new roots. It also helps the soil retain just the right amount of moisture, so water can easily get down to where plants need it and linger there long enough for them to use it. Not to mention all of the fantastic nutrients, healthy microbes and fungi that it adds. In my experience adding compost is the best thing I can do for any type of gardening.
I have bought my compost, either from our local municipal yard waste company, or from a local nursery that collects yard waste and manures from local folks and composts it there on site. I still buy the manure enriched compost for my vegetable gardens since it contains lots of good nitrogen reserves and I do not have any cows or chickens on site to provide the manure for my own composting. But regular, run of the mill compost is fairly easy to produce and I’ve gotten competent enough at it that I can produce most of what my yard needs and now buy very little commercial compost. Which saves quite a bit of cash. I especially like that there aren’t a lot of catastrophic mistakes to be made when composting, everything will eventually decompose.
Composting is just accelerating rot. It’s combining all of the ingredients in a way that encourages the right microbes, fungi and insects to break down dead plant material into their basic components so that they are usable by living plants. If you do so in a less than ideal way, then it takes longer to get your compost. When hot composting there is a chance that you can get things so hot that you start a fire. As I understand it, that’s pretty unlikely to happen when more casually composting. The other unpleasant issue that I know of with compost is that it can potentially stink. If compost starts to smell bad, it probably means that there is too much nitrogen from either manures or some protein that got into the pile/bin. The smell should be helped by covering it with some carbon-rich material. Straw, wood chips, dry leaves, shredded paper will all work to encapsulate the stinky pile, which should dry out the surface and cut the smell right away as well as eventually also balance out the nitrogen. But most yard wast compost smells delicious, it’s a fresh, sweet smell that reminds me of fresh cut cucumber or the smell of the forest after it rains.
I designed our compost bin years ago, long before I really took any joy in using it and was at least as concerned with aesthetics as I was functionality. It was probably dumb luck as much as anything that the ideas from other people’s designs actually added up to something quite functional.
The basic idea is that I have three compartments that hold roughly one yard of material each. Each bin is a different stage of composting that gets turned over into the next bin. This approach makes the tedious work of turning the compost much less tedious than if it was all in one large bin. The fronts and dividers are made of Trex slats that slide into groves in my posts, this allows me to remove them and access the compost more easily for turning and removal.
The back and sides are made of hardware cloth to let air circulate around the piles. In theory this system could generate a yard of compost every few weeks, especially in the summer. But in my current season of life, I don’t get all the bins turned weekly. So for now, I opt for the more relaxed, it-all-decomposes-eventually method and turn the compost when I get to it. Right now that system works pretty well. I’m able to pull out small amounts as needed and do really large compost projects a couple of times of year.
In my first bin, I dump my raw materials: leaves, twigs, grass clippings and other small yard debris. Ideally I put in roughly half brown material and half greens but if I’m being honest, my mixture varies quite a bit depending on the season. I do not include branches, they take more time to compost than I want them living in my bin. So until I get a chipper those go in the municipal yard waste. Since I don’t want to inoculate my garden beds with weeds, I also put my pulled weeds in the municipal yard bin as well. The pile needs to be damp but not soaking, most of the year I let rain do this job. My pile is semi-protected so it doesn’t usually get boggy. In the summertime it does dry up for a while so if I want to keep things moving, I do need to wet things down a bit.
After a little while (a week or more) the first bin gets turned into the second. To help make that job easier, I remove the slats from the front of the bin. I also often remove a couple of slats from the divider so I can toss materials over more easily. Any materials that have not broken down at all, I leave behind. Similarly the second bin gets turned into the third. In between full turns I’ll often stir the bins a little, especially since the back of my bins are a little protected from the rain, pulling the back materials to the front ensures that they get good and damp to keep things moving along.
The finished product looks more like soil than mulch and is ready to add as a top dressing or soil amendment in the garden beds. I do end up with some un-composted debris in my compost, which doesn’t usually bother me. as I’m spreading it, I usually pick out any larger bits and toss them in a bucket to put back in the appropriate compost bin. If it ever does bother me I may look into a compost sifter (as a side note, those remind me of giant flour sifters, the end product looks quite similar in texture to sifted flour too.)
I do not put food scraps in my main compost bin. I’m not interested in maintaining the neighborhood rodent population, so leaving edible anything out in the open is problematic. But food scraps are so rich in good minerals and nutrients that I hate to let those go to waste.
So I have two green cone food digesters purchased from the City of Seattle. Basically they are in-ground worm bins covered with a big cone that has a latching lid to keep rodents and other critters out. The same thing could be accomplished by drilling a bunch of holes in the lower part of a trash can with a latching lid and partially burying it. I dump the scraps in, and the worms, red worms specifically, go to town munching it up leaving behind their plant nurturing castings. I’ve heard from others that they had to purchase their worms but mine just showed up for free. We put all of our fruit and vegetable scraps, breads, pastas (if not coated in oil or meat sauce), even easily composted papers like paper towels work great. The red worms don’t care for meats, dairy or oils so adding those will make the cone stink and potentially slow down the composting of the other scraps. We put those kinds of food waste along with food stained paper products that won’t fit well into the bins into the municipal yard waste. The idea is to fill up the basket into the cone, until the cone is about 2/3 full, then start filling up the second cone. In the meantime the food in cone one will be digested down into the basket. By the time the second cone is full, the first one is usually ready to and I either mix into the regular compost bin or add it to garden beds that need a little extra nutritive boost, like my rasberries. The amount of time per cycle varies but I usually harvest my food compost once or twice a year. Occasionally my first cone is not completely finished when the second one fills up. When this happens, I either pull out what I can and dump the remainder into cone 2 or just leave it and start putting new food scraps in on top of it. It usually catches up the next time around. In the summer the food scraps can get stinky (the stink stays in the cone) or even attract flies so it’s handy to have something like shredded paper or wood chips around to toss over the top each time you add some scraps. That keeps the top layer dry so that the flies aren’t so attracted to it and I don’t have to hold my breath the next time I open the lid to avoid inhaling them.
That’s it, easy composting. There’s a lot more that can be done with it, I’m sure I’ll expand on this in the future. But this goes a long way and I’m happy with this compost program for my yard right now.