7 Tips For Making And Using Compost In The Garden

Making and using compost all to the exclusion of all chemical fertilizers is not new. Longtime gardeners highly recommend using composts and organic matter in the garden.

For thousands of years the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and the people of many European nations all made and used composts.

Using compost in the garden or on the lawn is not without controversy. Some advocates of organic gardening claim any use of commercial fertilizers will harm the soil.

Some advocates of organic gardening claim any use of commercial fertilizers will harm the soil.

However, when organic matter from the composting process in any form gets combined with commercial fertilizers, the yields are usually greater than when either material is used alone.

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When properly used commercial fertilizers prove beneficial, not detrimental, to garden soils and crops. The actual results obtained from any soil treatment, however, vary considerably depending on:

  • Soil Structure
  • Water-holding capacity
  • Seasonal conditions
  • Crop grown

Always do a soil analysis so that you will know the actual soil fertility. You will know what soil amendments and in what amounts will benefit the crops grown.

Compost decomposes most rapidly and benefits the soil most when a mixture of finely ground limestone and fertilizer chemicals supplying available nitrogen and phosphorus mix with the composting materials, especially when compost manure is not available.

Using Compost Benefits The Soil And Environment

For hundreds and even thousands of years, gardeners have been creating their compost application by piling organic yard waste – weeds, coffee grounds, leaves, grass clippings, manures – in heaps, to decompose into soil-enriching compost.

In a compost bin or heap, dead materials become transformed into substances that nourish new life. Compost increases the fertility of the soil, introduces beneficial microbes and improves its physical soil structure.

As a soil amendment adding compost to clay soil helps loosen hard-packed clays, binds sandy soil, aids water retention, and releases major and minor nutrients to plant roots. No other substance has so many beneficial effects on the chemical, physical and biological properties of the soil.

Garden compost, is a basic tool for building fertile soil and thus for growing quality plants. Made and used properly, it is excellent for everything from sowing seeds to feeding trees.

Composting For Soil Improvement

A long time friend Ron W shared his experience with adding compost to his growing routine.

“Finished” compost from the pile has many purposes in the garden. For flower beds, I use four parts soil from the compost pile and one part unscreened leaf compost.

For outdoor potting soils, I use screened material from both heaps, half, and half plus a little sand. For improving garden soil I use leaf compost, applying it steadily year by year in the Fall and digging it in. In this way, a poor soil derived from gray mud shale has been completely transformed.”

Compost and Fertilizer

There are those who say composted material contains everything necessary for the growth of plants.

Ron W shares this perspective…

“Much as I depend upon my yearly harvest of compost, I would not care to garden with compost alone. I use fertilizer applications over all my garden, regardless of the amount of compost used.

I find that organic material in compost improves the soil, making it more friable and, at the same time, more retentive of water.

Compost stimulates the activities of beneficial soil bacteria, provides some plant food and establishes healthy growing conditions under which plants can make more use of extra plant food supplied by fertilizer. Compost and fertilizer work together. Neither does its best work alone.”

How To Make Good Compost

In times past homeowners would burn their leaves, grass clippings, weeds, and small prunings and destroy valuable soil material. Organic material that improved soil structure and added fertilizer to the soil too. Material for helping aerate a heavy clay soil or assist sandy soil in retaining much-needed moisture.

Good Soil And Good Compost Full Of Life!

Do you think of soil as being something inactive and lifeless? Poor soil may be near death, but good soil is teeming with untold numbers of active and very much alive microorganisms.

Treat soils, like plants, like living things. A close relationship exists between the amount of life in the soil and its fertility on which productivity depends.

Forests continue to thrive for ages because each year the falling refuse collects to gradually decay and enrich the soil. We use this same principle by making compost from our waste materials and applying it to our gardens each year. The waste materials convert into a rich, dark, crumbly substance that can give new life to worn out soils. Even good soils need renewing.

There are dozens of ways of composting these waste materials. Some are simple to follow, and others are quite lengthy and complex. Busy gardeners will probably prefer the simpler methods.

Two Easy Composting Methods

These two easy methods for composting honestly, should not be termed “making compost.”

Both methods improve on the burning or destroying of a valuable material or having it hauled away to the local landfill.

The first uses nature’s way. This method allows leaves to fall between the shrubs and perennials. Then remove the materials from the lawn or paths to places where the soil needs enriching.

This could include grass clippings and weeds. It is more mulching than composting but this material in time by works of insects and bacteria along with the help of rain enriches the soil.

The second method throws everything into a pile:

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Weeds
  • Small prunings
  • Kitchen waste consisting of food scraps vegetable peelings as it accumulates.

Slowly it would decay but sprinkling the soil with water and turning the material occasionally will improve the speed of decay. But with time and effort, you can get better results with less haphazard methods.

Where To Build Your Compost Bin

Now we get to the serious side of composting which begins with a compost bin or pile.

When choosing a location for your compost pile, use these guidelines:

  • Near a water supply
  • Screen it from view as much as possible
  • Protect it with a hedge, trellis, or wall on three sides
  • Place in a well-drained area – not near the bottom of a slope where water might collect during prolonged rainfall.

For backyard composting serious gardeners construct more permanent compost bins or fenced enclosures for composting.

For the sake of convenience, make it so you can open one side to turn the pile and get at the finished material. Snow fencing works well with four posts in the ground at each corner.

Other suggestions include:

  • Using cement blocks or bricks laid to permit air to enter
  • Chicken wire with posts to make a square, rectangular or round container
  • Rough stone where available
  • Logs making enclosures inconspicuous in the garden

When soil is necessary to add to the compost layers, dig a pit or hole in a well-drained location. This part of the heap is lower than the soil surface. Use the dug out soil in constructing the compost pile.

The size of the compost heap depends on space available and the amount of material at hand to use. It should probably be no smaller than five feet square but preferably larger.

For best results, five feet high is about the maximum regardless of width and length. If there is space, it is a good idea to have at least two piles. One ready to use and the other in the “decaying process.”

Also, make a space near the pile to collect the green materials as they accumulate. This future “green composting material” should wither some before being used. You also need enough on hand to build the heap all at one time.

What Are The “Green Garden Materials”?

By green materials we are talking about plant refuse:

  • Weeds
  • Grass clippings
  • Discarded vegetables of vegetable waste from the kitchen
  • Dead foliage
  • Hay
  • Straw
  • Corn stalks

Just about any vegetable scraps that will decay.

The use of the word “green” does not refer to color.

The Art Of Building The Compost Pile

If the location of the compost heap is on hard soil, spade it first to provide good drainage. Place a layer of green material six to ten inches high on the ground. The looser this material is, the thicker the layer can be.

If there is compost on hand, sprinkle a thin layer on the green layer. It will contain the soil organisms that help tear down the composting materials.

If you sift the finished compost recycle the coarse siftings for building these layers. Add a layer of fertilizer and a sprinkling of agricultural lime or wood ashes. Then a layer of soil enough to make about two inches of the materials above the green layer.

When using very dry composting material, water each layer as you add the layer to the heap. The bacteria that does the work requires ample moisture, but the bacteria also requires air.

The composting pile should not be waterlogged.

It should be soft and fluffy but have all the moisture it can hold without any of it running out of the bottom of the heap.

Add another layer of green material and then another layer of the fertilizer, soil, lime, and compost if any of the latter is at hand.

Alternate the layers to make the desired height, sloping the sides gradually to make the heap somewhat smaller at the top than at the bottom. Leave a depression at the top to hold water when it rains.

Use a hose to add water if the heap drys out between showers. Cover the top and sides with a six-inch straw mulch to prevent the heap from drying out during hot, dry windy weather.

Turning the pile in three weeks speeds up decomposition. Fork over the material, so the outside of the pile moves toward the center. This benefits the material of the stronger heating and decaying action in the center of the heap.

Turning the heap will disorder the layers, and this is all right. Turning again in five weeks will be beneficial. Over a four to 6 month period, the pile should decay and be ready to use.

If weather or specific conditions do not permit turning when the exact date arrives, there will be no harm done. In fact, you will discover lots of opinions on the matter of timing.

Some say to turn the pile every two months except during the winter. Others recommend one turning at the end of three months. A gardener must through experience find out which method works best for him.

The high heat generated in the fermenting process usually kills any weed seeds. There should be no disagreeable odor. If there is, it means that the wrong kind of decomposition is taking place.

  • Forking it over and adding agricultural lime usually corrects this.
  • A heap that does not have enough nitrogen will decay very slowly.

Adding fertilizer, rich soil, or compost will quicken the decaying process. A heap that is too soggy will smother the air-loving organisms yet if it is too dry, these organisms cannot work.

Make holes in the pile to permit air to enter. A black plastic sheet helps to keep the heap from drying out too rapidly. This also prevents the pile from getting too wet during rainy weather.

Shredding or grinding the green materials shortens the process of turning the heap into rich, crumbly dark humus. Break up or shred material such as corn stalks. Even leaves decay faster if shredded.

As the heap heats up, it starts shrinking in size. The heaps are made in layers, so the use of ingredients is in somewhat correct proportions and mixed evenly throughout the heap.

Content Credit: BestPlants.com