With its abundance of falling leaves and fading perennials, autumn is a natural time of year to start composting. A process in which various organic materials decay to produce a natural soil enhancer, composting is most frequently used to amend poor soil and reduce a garden’s need for fertilizer. If you’ve ever raked leaves in the fall, then ordered scoops of mulch in the spring and spread it on the garden (cough cough, guilty!) you’ve essentially discarded prime soil amenders and bought new ones that aren’t as good. Perhaps you’ve heard about the wonders of composting, but aren’t sure what’s involved or how complicated it is. Don’t worry; it’s actually a simple process. This year, instead of bagging or burning that brown stuff, why not give composting a try? Here’s all you need to know.
The rich, dark brown matter produced from composting can work wonders in garden beds and containers. It’s especially helpful in Virginia, which has a lot of heavy clay soil. Many plants struggle in clay because its dense structure is hard for roots to penetrate, while moisture retention and slow drainage can cause root rot. If you’ve carefully planted some pretty nursery specimens in your yard, only to watch them waste away like consumptive heroines in a 19th century novel, you may have a clay problem. Amending clay soil with compost will add vital nutrients as well as improve drainage by binding to the clay, producing larger particles that filter water more effectively.
Whether you have clay or not, compost will improve the soil quality and water retention in your garden. Homemade organic material saves money on bagged soil and fertilizer, and also decreases household waste sent to the landfill. Using compost instead of high-nitrogen fertilizer prevents runoff from polluting local waterways. And, if you have opened your windows on a glorious fall day, only to slam them shut after inhaling a lungful of burning leaf smoke, you can imagine that composting those leaves is a healthier alternative for your immediate air quality. In other words, composting beautifies the garden while taking care of Mother Nature. Win-win!
How It Works
The chemical process of composting works best with a mixture of carbon and nitrogen ingredients. Dry matter, such as leaves, pine needles, shredded cardboard and newspaper, eggshells, bark, and shredded twigs are all high-carbon “brown” materials. Fresh grass clippings, garden trimmings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds and tea leaves are nitrogen-rich “green ingredients.” Mixed together, these two components will help microorganisms break down the material. Heat is a by-product of this process, and is necessary for effective composting. Starting your compost in the fall with a bottom layer of dry, brown material will allow aeration throughout the pile. Chopping and shredding larger items will hasten decomposition, while sunny days and mild temperatures will provide a bit of heat to accelerate the process. Add kitchen scraps as you have them, and in spring begin incorporating green material, such as grass clippings. Just make sure you don’t add any meat or dairy products, as the compost won’t get hot enough to break them down, and they’ll also attract animals.
There is a lot of specialized composting equipment available which, if you’re new to composting, might seem intimidating. Remember that it doesn’t have to be complicated. Fundamentally, composting is free. Make a pile of unwanted kitchen and yard material, let it rest for several months, and you have your very own garden superfood. However, a few basic items will make the process more convenient.
In the Kitchen
For starters, you’ll want a vessel in your kitchen to hold those fruit and vegetables scraps, eggshells, and coffee grounds. You could use something as simple as a small aluminum pail with a lid. You can also buy special compost crocks with replaceable charcoal filters to absorb any odors. If you’re concerned about fruit flies, there are various decorative and unobtrusive fruit-fly traps on the market.
In the Backyard
The first option is just to make a pile in your yard. This is the best choice if you have a lot of leaves and garden material to compost, if you have a lot of soil you want amended, or if you just want to keep it simple. Select an out-of-the-way location that gets some sun, since the sun’s heat will accelerate the process, and begin with a layer of brown material. Don’t heap it right up against a wooden structure, as over time it can rot the wood. You may want to contain the pile by installing a simple fence around it. A wire or mesh fence is a simple but tidy option. Hardware cloth is sturdy and will hold its shape while containing the compost. You can secure the wire with metal stakes, or construct a basic wood frame with treated lumber. Leave the fence open on one side for easy access, or install a gate. A compost pile will quickly become home to various microorganisms, along with earthworms, sow bugs, nematodes, and other tiny creatures who will get the compost party started. Keep your compost aerated and active by turning it every couple of weeks with a pitchfork or shovel (you can also buy a compost aerator, which looks like a metal pole with wings at the bottom) and add moisture now and then to aid decomposition. A good guideline is to add a bit of water when you add brown material; green material has its own moisture.
If you are looking to compost a smaller amount and want something more concealed, you can purchase special tumblers and bins. There are a variety of sizes and options available to suit different needs and budgets. A tumbler is a drum with a hinged door, usually mounted on a frame. It has a turning crank either attached to a gear on the frame, or connected to a center axle that runs through the center of the drum. Some popular features are drums with interior fins to help mix the compost, insulated drums to help “cook” the material, and drums that are divided into two compartments so that one side can hold fresh material while the other side decomposes. An advantage with tumblers is that they will stay warmer than an open-air pile, which increases the rate of decomposition. You can’t put earthworms in a tumbler because it gets too hot inside, but you can buy compost “activator” which contains things like microorganisms, enzymes, and meal such as bonemeal and alfalfa meal.
A third option is a compost bin, essentially a large ventilated container that is often made of sturdy polyethylene, like a Rubbermaid tub. As with tumblers, options include insulated bins, and bins divided into several trays for different stages of compost. A bin will hold more than a tumbler, making it a good middle-ground choice. Be aware that it can be tough to turn the material inside a compost bin, and less aeration means the composting process will take a bit longer.
Depending upon the conditions of your compost pile, you should have rich soil and a gourmet meal for your plants in several months. It may take longer if conditions are less than ideal, or if you started with a lot of coarse material. When the compost is dark and crumbly, with no trace of the initial ingredients, it is ready for use. With a compost pile or bin, dig into the bottom to find the richest material.
You can add composted soil to your garden at any time of year. Put it in the holes you dig for new plantings. Spread it as mulch and slow-release fertilizer in established garden beds to help control weeds while adding beneficial nutrients to the soil. Use it for container plantings instead of pricey potting soil. You can even brew a “compost tea” (not for drinking!) by placing a shovelful of compost in an old pillowcase, tying the case, and submerging it in a lidded five-gallon bucket of water, stirring whenever possible to keep it oxygenated. (Healthy tea will have an earthy smell. If it smells spoiled, pour it back onto your compost pile and try again.) Use compost tea as soon as it’s ready, usually in a day or two when it’s the color of strong coffee.
To use this “tea,” dilute the brew with water until it is the color of iced tea (approximately 3 parts water to 1 part tea.) This liquid gold makes an excellent natural fertilizer, which can be sprinkled directly onto foliage as well as into surrounding soil. Using compost tea on foliage can also help control plant blights and molds, as well as reduce insect damage.
Recycling organic material turns nature’s trash into your treasure. Composting can invigorate scruffy shrubs and pallid plants while conserving natural resources. If you find yourself with some leftover leaves and yard trimmings this season, perhaps it’s time to adhere to the old saying, “Waste not, want not,” and start a compost pile. Your garden, and Mother Nature, will thank you.
Keep kitchen scraps in a pail or crock
Select an outdoor location with some sun
Start with a layer of brown material
Add kitchen scraps as they occur, and green material in the spring
Keep the compost moist
Turn compost every week or two
When compost is evenly brown and crumbly, add to garden beds