The value of adding compost to garden beds and container plants is well known. Compost adds nutrients, increases soil composition, helps with root development, increases moisture retention, and attracts beneficial soil organisms that contribute to maintaining a healthy medium in which your plants can grow. Garden compost can be made from a multitude of organic products such as leaves, manure, kitchen scraps (minus the meat and dairy, more on that later), yard debris, and more. It is the decomposition of these materials that creates compost, a humus-rich product used as a soil amendment.
Compost vs. Fertilizer
Compost is not just fertilizer but increases soil composition, as well as providing nutrients for plants. If you think of the soil that surrounds your plants as a living, breathing creature using fertilizer is the equivalent of taking a bunch of vitamin pills. There are benefits and you get the positive results fairly quickly, but on the downside the improvements you see aren't sustainable, tend to burn out as quick as they come, and it's hard to regulate things to make sure your soil isn't taking in too many nutrients or chemicals at once.
Reasons to Compost
Adding compost to your root system is the equivalent of eating a sustained healthy, balanced diet. The results aren't immediate, but you're creating long lasting conditions that work in concert to improve your soil's overall wellness. Fertilizers are primarily concerned with nutrient levels and nutrient uptake. Well made compost covers that and then some with added benefits like increased moisture retention and soil longevity.
Another argument for backyard composting is that much of this material: tree limbs, grass clippings, kitchen waste, animal manure, and more would end up at the landfill, taking up space and increasing methane production. Removing these organic materials from the waste stream and increasing landfill longevity, is often seen as a priority for some municipalities. These communities may have a composting component included in a homeowner’s garbage collection services which is a nice alternative so the homeowner can recycle these goods, but also not need to transport materials themselves.
Common Composting Difficulties
There aren't really any negatives or reasons not to compost. However, there are needs inherent to successful composting that can make it difficult for everyone to adopt, primarily the space requirements. While compost is most effective when cultivated and applied in large quantities, it can still be done on smaller scales but be aware that when your compost area is limited, there's a risk that weed seeds in your compost materials won't be killed during the “cooking” process and thus get introduced into your backyard when applied.
Making compost depends upon several factors and a gardener’s willingness to dedicate some space for a composting area. Numerous companies package and sell compost for gardeners. Often sold by the cubic foot, this option eliminates the need to produce compost, especially for gardeners living in areas such as apartment buildings, small homes, rental units, and other situations where either space is limited or convenience is preferred. Costs vary depending upon the product and quality and is sold in garden centers, nurseries, large supermarkets, and home improvement centers.
For gardeners that want to produce their own compost, there are also many options to pursue. Space, time, and availability of organic material are several factors to consider. Yard debris, leaves, lawn clippings, manure, kitchen scraps (leave out meat or dairy products that might attract rodents), and woody debris may be added to compost piles. For woody or green material, a shredder or other option to reduce the size of the pieces will aid in the decomposition process.
As a helpful tip, instead of adding leaves directly to a compost pile, spread them out on a lawn and use a lawn mower with a bagger attached to shred the leaves into smaller sizes. This saves you time and effort, but still produces very usable material for decomposition.
Compost in Action
Organic material will break down due to bacteria, soil organisms, and time, all part of the decomposition process. A compost heap started in late spring may be ready to apply to the garden in fall, when the organic material has broken into a dark, crumbly humus. Weather, drainage, temperature, and moisture content can also aid or slow down this process.
Compost is often added in the fall or spring before planting. Compost may be layered on garden beds at the rate of ½-2” thick or worked into the soil. Container plants do well with a top-dressing of compost or added to the pots at a 1:4 ratio by volume – one quarter compost to garden pot size.
No matter if compost bins or tumblers will be used, available space is a primary question. Is there room to install several leaf bins or compost heaps that might take up 4-10 square feet? Using pre-made bins or creating a compost stall out of wood pallets or wire, will help contain the material and keep the pile growing upwards, not outwards.
Typically, layers of green and brown material form a compost heap. This could be grass clippings or manure layered between old leaves or hay. Wetting down the layers increases the rate of decomposition, although conditions can become too wet and prevent aerobic decomposition. A tarp covering the pile can help moderate moisture levels. You can further separate out the wet from the too wet by having a secondary bin, which also allows the pile to be occasionally turned over.
Some compost piles are 'leave it' piles. Organic material is just piled and left to break down on its own. This can be a slow process, but takes minimal effort. No matter if the pile is left alone or turned on a regular basis, pick an unused spot in the yard to establish a pile.
Bins designs can utilize concrete block, recycled wood, pallets, hay bales, wire mesh, old tires, galvanized siding, and other materials. Diversity is in the eye of the creator – there are no rules when it comes to material selection. Some may work better that others; remember to allow for drainage and air to circulate between the layers. Commercial products can range from $20 all the way up to $300 depending upon materials and complexity. Since this is such a time consuming process, start cheap and work your way up to more complex systems as you get more comfortable making and using compost.
There are numerous options for container composting on the market. These range from a rain barrel with holes for drainage, to tumblers set on legs for easy turning, to worm bins that utilize red wiggler worms to break down kitchen waste.
The bins are generally top loading with a sliding door at the base to dig out the finished product. Tumblers may be top or side loaded. Containers used for kitchen scraps are useful to deter rodents that might otherwise burrow into a compost heap. Meat and dairy products also attract vermin or other unwanted guests such as raccoons, neighbor dogs, or skunks.
Tumblers and other containers can be opened to add water in case the mix becomes too dry and slows down decomposition. Some tumblers are designed to be rolled on the ground and stamped with the days of the week to remind gardeners when the next rotation is due. Many have holes to allow for aeration or the addition of water to keep the pile moist and decomposing during dry spells.
Worm bins made from tote containers or recycled pickle buckets can be used indoors, as in the garage, not living room, during the year. Red wiggler worms are employed to plow through kitchen scraps and even the "compost tea” that drains out the bottom can be mixed with water to fertilize plants. A tip is to place the worm bin with drainage holes stacked within another container which allows for excess moisture to drip out of the top container into the lower one. Worm bins might be a good option for gardeners who have little outdoor space or live in apartments. This type of composting is called vermiculture and requires a dark, warm space where the worms can do their thing. The bins made be stored inside in a garage or mudroom during the winter to keep the worms from freezing. Or, as I do, I winterize my large bins with straw bales and cover the tops with a tarp.
To help get a compost pile going, some gardeners add compost starter mixes to their piles. These mixes include microbes or micro-organisms to kick start the decomposition process. A compost thermometer can also be used to gauge the temperature of the pile and if it is sufficient to break down weed seeds or is hot enough for decomposition.
So, no matter which way gardeners go, making and adding compost to your garden will help to produce healthy plants and provide benefits to the soil that often go unseen. Plus, you’ll get a green thumbs-up from your gardening friends for your commitment to the environment.
For more information on composting, visit your local extension service or one of the many websites on the subject: