a bin full of compost

The goal of home composting is to support nature’s self-regenerating power in ways that work harmoniously with the needs of your back yard. Many people start composting for practical reasons. Home composting your leaves, grass clippings, garden waste and food scraps reduces the amount of garbage you generate. Plus, compost is essential for a great garden, and starting your own pile ensures a free, regular supply.

A compost pile starts out as a diverse pile of kitchen and garden “waste.” Left alone, any of these materials would eventually decompose. But when a variety of materials are mixed together and kept moist and aerated, the process accelerates. Compost matures into what soil scientists call active organic matter.

Why add compost to garden soil?

  • It increases its water-holding capacity
  • It invigorates the soils food and provides a buffet of plant nutrients
  • It enhances your plants’ ability to respond to challenges from insects and disease
  • Starting a new compost pile can be a fast, easy project
close up of compost material

Balancing ingredients is optional

To help compost decompose rapidly, a balance of “two parts brown to one part green” is often preached as composting gospel, but in truth, keeping a balanced ratio is simply an option.

  • Brown materials: Dry materials, such as leaves, pine needles and dead plants
  • Green materials: Wetter materials, such as grass clippings and kitchen waste

Good compost can be either hot or cold

Most people who carefully manage their compost piles for a balance of ingredients are trying to produce hot compost, which heats up or “cooks” as the materials decompose. Hot compost is the fastest type of compost to produce, but it’s not necessarily better. Intensively worked hot compost that’s produced in only three to four weeks ranks pretty low in terms of microbial diversity.

If you want the best compost, you want cured compost. This is mature compost that is set aside in a covered place where it can age for at least a couple of months. Bacteria produced this way “prime” plants to do a superior job of defending themselves from pests and diseases.

Small or large — any size pile will work just fine

Simply pile stuff together until the heap is big enough to merit some attention. Then, one day, when you’re in a composting mood, pick up a digging fork and spend some time mixing the materials in the pile, adding water to keep it moist.

Turning compost is optional.

Reasons to turn compost include:

  • Achieving a good mix of materials
  • Discovering dry pockets in need of moisture
  • Breaking compost into smaller pieces, which helps push almost-done compost to full maturity
  • Satisfying your curiosity as to what’s happening in your heap!

Gauge the moisture level of your compost pile by its fragrance

When you dig around in a heap and don’t smell the desired earthy fragrance, lack of moisture is usually the reason. To make it easier to keep these piles wet, there is no easier way to moisten the inside of a dry heap than by using a soaker hose.

Unpleasant odors in compost can be caused by the materials themselves, but even smelly things won’t stink if they are buried a few inches deep. Enclosed compost can go stinky if it’s too wet. If you’re using a plastic bin or tumbler, do pay close attention to water, because it’s easy to add too much.

Compost need not be a secret

Locate compost as close as possible to where the materials are generated or where the finished compost will be used.

an earthworm

With a worm bin, you can even compost indoors

Composting with captive earthworms, called vermicomposting, is a great way to compost paper products and food waste from your kitchen. Vermicomposting bins can be kept indoors or outside, but they work great indoors in winter, when outdoor heaps often freeze.

You can safely compost livestock manure

This biologically active material is a terrific soil amendment, and composting livestock manure makes it safe to use in the garden. You should use caution with animal manures because many do contain bacteria, but making and using manure-enriched compost won’t make you sick unless you’re careless.

There are good uses for immature compost

You can make compost by piling up stuff in layered beds, some people call this lasagna compost. If you top off the layers with burlap or some other water-permeable cloth, you can call it Interbay compost, named after the innovative gardeners at Interbay Community Garden in Seattle, who reuse burlap coffee bags to cover layered compost. I call it comforter compost because it’s such a good way to tuck in soil for winter, or begin the healing process for soil that’s been neglected or abused.

Every gardener wants to make great compost, and experience is the best teacher. Just know you cannot fail, because compost knows what to do. Trust the composting process, follow nature’s lead, and things will turn out great in the end.