Over the past decade or so, compost-making has become a serious endeavor. No more pitchforks and haphazard piles of yard refuse. Modern day composting requires tumblers and digesters, activators and energizers, shredders and aerators, thermometers and sifters. All this for something that seems like the ultimate down-to-earth pursuit!
Let there be no doubt -- composting gear definitely has its place. In urban and suburban areas, a closed bin with a tight-fitting lid is a necessity. Containing your compost in some sort of bin also helps retain moisture and heat. Activators, aerators, and shredders all help speed up the decomposition process and give you a finely-textured end product. But some gardeners may find the gear, the recipes, and the mystique a bit daunting. Others, myself included, would simply rather spend their gardening hours planting flowers and picking herbs than tending compost piles. So on that note, I offer you six of my own slightly irreverent composting tips.
1. Don't fret. Making compost is a natural process that's impossible to stop. Like the bumper sticker says, "Compost Happens." No matter what you do, organic matter will eventually break down into a crumbly, brown, soil-like substance. Unassisted, the decomposition process will take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years.
2. Cover your pile. If it's an open pile, just cover it with a tarp or a sheet of plastic. Or keep the lid on your compost bin. A cover is not essential, but it is an easy way to maintain the right moisture content -- not too soggy, but not too dry either.
3. Turn it if you can. Once a week, once a month, or not at all. You decide. But even turning (mixing) the material once will really speed things up. You'll be distributing the moisture and the microbes and adding air (which the microbes require to do their work).
4. Hoard when you can. In the fall, spent plant material is plentiful. As long as it's not a weed, it should find its way into your compost pile. Leaves are my favorite compost ingredient. High in organic matter and minerals, I collect them from my yard, from the neighbors, and get them pre-bagged from the landfill. Besides adding them to the compost pile, I use them as mulch (uncomposted) around my asparagus and raspberries. If I get a chance to shred some (running over them with the lawn mower -- or use our electric shredder), I work them right into the soil around my plants (adding a little granular fertilizer to make sure they don't steal nitrogen as they're decomposing).
5. Chunky, please. I like my peanut butter creamy, but I like my compost chunky. I know the pros say that you want finely textured finished compost. But I think chunks are good. Have you ever pulled out a big old broccoli plant in early spring from last year's garden and seen how many worms are working away at the roots? Chunks of organic material are employment opportunties for worms, millipedes, sowbugs, and billions of tiny microorganisms. These guys are the life in your soil. They release soil nutrients and keep your plants healthy.
6. Diversify. There isn't one ultimate composting technique. The best one is the one that works for you. In the fall, I put my leaves in a wire bin. I can pack in cart-full after cart-full of leaves and they won't blow away. During the winter here in northern Vermont, I use a bin with a snug-fitting lid. I add kitchen scraps all winter long and let them pile up (frozen solid) until spring arrives. Tumblers are good for making quick batches of compost. They work best when the weather is warm and when you start out with material that's in relatively small pieces (1-2"). Sheet composting is another option (more on that below). I've even composted in a black plastic garbage bag. I collected a bunch of bedding hay and horse manure one spring intending to add it to my compost pile. I forgot about the bag until late summer, and when I opened it up it was crumbly and black.
And that leads me to one last tip. It's about "trench composting" and "sheet composting." These little known, low-tech approaches are not only easy, but have some other big benefits, too. The basic idea is to simply skip the composting step and put the organic materials directly into your garden. It's a technique that's ideal for kitchen scraps, and is best suited to a vegetable garden.
For trench composting, simply dig some holes about 6" deep, drop in your kitchen scraps, and cover with soil. Or lift up the mulch in your pathways, lay down a layer of kitchen scraps, and cover it up. Check back in a couple weeks and you'll be astounded by all the busy soil creatures feasting away.
Sheet composting is an ideal early fall technique. Remove spent plants from your garden beds, layer on kitchen scraps, shredded leaves, rotted straw, grass clippings, and a bit of fertilizer to supply some nitrogen. Dig or till it in, and by spring you'll have nothing but lots of earthworms and a few un-decomposed chunks (remember, chunks are good!). Sheet composting is also a very good way to reinvigorate a garden with poor or depleted soil. This fall, pile on a 4-6" layer of material, sprinkle on some granular organic fertilizer (something with plenty of nitrogen), till it in, and let it sit there until spring. You can read more about trench and sheet composting in my favorite composting book: The Rodale Book of Composting by Deborah L. Martin and Grace Gershuny (Rodale Press, 1992).
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 5, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)