5 Essential Tips For Successful Composting

By on May 6, 2013

Compost is the “black gold” of the gardening industry. Here are 5 essential tips for successful composting and by  following a few simple tips you can easily convert your home waste into healthy compost for your plants and garden.

By utilizing composting methods there is no need to purchase commercial fertilizers which put a strain on your garden and wallet. Plus you do not require a large amount of space as there is more than one way to achieve your goal of “black gold”.

Tip 1: Mix Green and Brown Vegetable Matter

To make good compost, you must first understand the process of doing so. Without an understanding, you may not achieve satisfactory results. Compost is made of vegetable matter, and is a healthy mix of both green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon).

Green matter consists of:

  • fresh grass clippings
  • weeds (that have not gone to seed) that you have pulled from your garden
  • vegetable scraps from your kitchen,
  • coffee grounds and tea leaves.

Brown matter consists of:

  • straw
  • dry grass clippings
  • eggshells
  • stale dried herbs and spices
  • wood chips (avoid treated wood like the plague)
  • and even rabbit pellets.

It is important to have a healthy balance of brown and green matter, as the breakdown will not be efficient if there is too much of one and not enough of the other. If there is too much green matter, your compost may become smelly and slimy. To remedy this problem, simply mix in more brown matter.

If your compost is too dry and adding water doesn’t speed things up, you may need to incorporate more green matter. This is easily accomplished by adding grass clippings, kitchen vegetable scraps or immature weeds from the garden.

Tip 2: Find A Container That Works For You

There are several types of containers which may be used for composting, but the five basic types are listed.

Bottomless plastic composters – This type of composter is best placed in a sunny area of your yard, yet close to the kitchen. The bottomless container has a lid and ventilation slots, plus a door near the bottom to allow for easy removal of contents. By being bottomless, it encourages the natural activity of earthworms in your existing garden soil, plus allows for proper drainage. This type is usually black, which will absorb the heat of the sun to speed up the composting process. This compost container is ideal for small yards where space is of the essence.

To fully benefit from this type, be sure you add the green and brown matter in proportion to one another, plus monitor it for moisture. If it is too wet, open the lid for a few hours and mix the contents to encourage air circulation. If it is too dry, simply add some water and mix. There are compost mixers available on the market, but all you really need is a hand cultivator with a long handle. (This type of mixer will work for the larger bins as well.)

Barrel-type composters – A barrel composter is ideal for small spaces and allows for portability. With this type the materials are added, and the contents are mixed by rotating the barrel. This allows for quicker decomposition, which in turn give you the finished product much quicker.

The commercial type are rather costly, but homemade versions function just as well. If making your own, one of the most important features you will need is a tight-fitting lid. Half finished compost is NOT what you want dumped on your patio.

Plastic cylinder (such as a trash can) – This type is a good starter; plastic trash cans are reasonably priced and you get a workout rolling it around the yard. The contents are added much the same as in any compost mixture, then the container is tipped on its side and rolled back and forth. This is also one of those instances where a tight-fitting lid is essential. If you find you like the system, you can easily add it to a stand and use a handle to rotate the container.

Wire-enclosed compost pile – A compost heap generally works best if it has dimensions of three feet cubed. This allows for the materials to be added, mixed and utilized. An ideal composting system will have three of these units side by side. The first is for new materials, the second for partially composted material and the final one for finished compost. In order to benefit from this type, you will need a larger area in an out-of-the-way corner of your yard. Welded wire is best as it is stronger, but chicken wire will suffice. By having three bins, you will always have a fresh supply of compost.

Pit-type composters – This type is not commonly used, as it requires a hole be dug into the ground. If you have a long-term residence and feel it is a practical solution, by all means dig a pit. Since you will be digging at least a couple of feet into the soil, be sure you are not going to come into contact with any buried lines, pipes or cables. This is one of those times where you should “Call before you dig”. Having an open pit in your yard is not safe, so be sure to cover the pit with a solid lid. This will deter animals from digging into the pit and keep unsuspecting passersby from stepping into it.

Tip 3: Keep Materials Small for Speedier Composting

This does not necessarily mean the size of your compost pile, but rather the size of the materials going into it. By chopping the materials into smaller pieces, you are allowing for a speedier breakdown of matter. By speeding up the decomposition process you are decreasing the time it takes to get into your garden. Using kitchen shears or a knife will work for cutting up kitchen scraps. For garden scraps, you may wish to chop them up with a spade or a machete. The smaller the pieces going in, the quicker you will have healthy compost coming out.

Tip 4: Use Worms If You Have Limited Space

An alternative to regular composting is vermicomposting. This method produces quicker results, and on a smaller, more manageable scale. It is ideal for apartment dwellers when a traditional heap just isn’t possible. Along with the smaller scale, the efficiency of the worms gives you more time to tend to other matters of the gardening experience.

Wait a minute! Yes, I said worms! Red worms are most commonly used for vermicomposting as they survive better in captivity than earthworms, and are more efficient at processing the fruit and vegetable scraps fed to them. It does take a little more preparation, but once the system is set in place all you have to do is feed them (just like any other pet) and harvest their castings (yes, their poop).

With vermicomposting, there is no need for a heap. The worms are kept in a covered plastic container and given shredded newspaper for bedding. They can be given vegetable scraps from the kitchen (go easy on the citrus though), and as they eat and process the scraps they will provide you with castings. The castings may be added directly to the soil of your houseplants and container gardens. The worms will need ventilation so holes will have to be punched in the lid and upper third of the sides of the container. In order to reduce the amount of moisture inside the container, holes must be punched in the bottom as well. If there is too much liquid inside, the worms will drown. The excess liquid will drain into the lower container and the may be used for fertilizing the plants as well after it has been diluted at least 50/50.

Tip 5: Get Yourself A Sifter

When composting on any level, having a sifter is beneficial. By sifting through the compost you are able to utilize the finished product and return any larger bits to the bin for further composting. A wire mesh with holes approximately one eighth of an inch works well. Attach the wire mesh to a square or rectangular wooden frame with small nails or heavy duty staples.

To use the sifter simply place it over a container (a wheelbarrow works great) and pour some compost on top. Move the compost around with a gloved hand or garden trowel. This allows the smaller, finished bits to fall through while keeping the bigger bits to be dumped back into the compost bin.

Wrapping It Up

Compost is the ideal fertilizer for your plants and garden. It can be mixed directly into the soil or used as a top-dressing in containers. When used as a top-dressing the nutrients will leach into the soil every time you water. By making your own compost you cut down on the waste going into the landfills and increase the health and production of your own garden. Remember: there is more than one way to make compost, but the principles are basically the same. Green plus brown plus water equals a healthy garden. The only variation with a significant difference is the vermicomposting.

Want To Learn More?

If this article has you wanting to learn more about composting, a great resource is the book called The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin.

About Diane Ziomek

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