Time or money invested in your garden’s soil always brings the best returns: healthy, vigorous plants and great harvests. And when you keep yard waste and kitchen scraps from the landfill you’re doubly rewarded. You can buy ready-made, organic compost to get a jump start. But it’s easy and inexpensive to make your own with the right materials and good equipment.
Here you’ll find all you need to know about getting started as well as maintaining the process no matter which composting method you’ve chosen. There’s basic techniques and time-tested wisdom as well as guides to compost tumblers and the various compost aides — the best starters, the most functional and efficient containers, and practical, useful tools like compost thermometers — that will make your composting efforts efficient and rewarding. You can also learn a lot by going through Planet Natural‘s complete line of composting bins, tumblers and equipment. (Source: Planet natural Resource Center - Compost Guru)
Making VS buying compost
Option 1 - Least work: Buy clean organic compost for your edible beds from Deep Roots or a garden center.
Option 2 - Least work: Use the municipal food scrap and yard waste recycling programs which accept food scraps, weeds, grass clippings, shrub branches, etc.) Leaves are collected separately.
For example, Oak Park provides a large gray recycling bin for about $15 per month. Share the bin with your neighbor to cut the cost in half. During the growing season the Village picks up once a week. During the winter they pick up once a month. This waste is trucked to a large scale composting facility that kills all the weed seeds and roots with high heat. Piles of finished compost are trucked back to Oak Park for residents to use. BUT… don’t use this Village compost on your edible plants since it is contaminated with toxic chemicals commonly used on lawns and yards.
Option 3 - Least work: You can have your own safe and clean organic compost quickly and easily from your own shredded yard waste, food scraps, weeds and leaves if you hire Teegen Compost Services. Teegen provides a cubic yard wire bin for your yard. The cubic yard (about 200 gallons) of waste shrinks down to 50 gallons of compost which is piled in your yard and combined with some water. Teegen shreds the bin’s content once a year. See his process, machinery and costs on his website. If you share this bin with your neighbor the cost is reduced. The cost of this service is about $200 per year. If your bin is not full when Teegen is ready to shred you can add ripped up corrugated card board boxes you have been saving for this purpose. Don’t add meat or animal waste from meat-eating mammals.
Option 4 - More work: Some power lawn mowers can shred softer yard waste small enough to speed up the decomposing time. It may not shred finely enough to heat up the the temperature that kills the weed seeds. There may be a shredder you can buy or borrow or rent that will shred all yard waste to the correct consistency. Deep Roots will look into buying one we can loan out to members.
Option 5 - lots more work: Use a compost tumbler. Load in the tumbler unshredded OR shredded food scraps, non-weed yard waste and some leaves but not grass clippings a little at a time. The material shrinks as it rots and makes room to add more. If you don’t have a way to shred your raw compost materials. Cut up the larger pieces. Spin the tumbler every few days. It will take months to turn into compost if the material is not shredded.
Option 6 - lots more work: If there are already weeds in your backyard compost pile your can try to kill the weed seeds after the pile has fully decomposed by putting the compost in heavy black leaf bags and leaving them in the sun at the hottest part of the summer for a week with a thermometer stuck inside. 130-160 degrees for 72 hours kills weed seeds. Rotate the bag every few weeks. Shake it like you shake the bag when making puppy chow, to mix it all up. Test the compost before putting on your beds by putting some in a sunny spot. Wait to see if weeds sprout. If no weeds sprout you are safe to use the
Option 7 - Way way too much work, too slow and takes too much space: The classic instructions for making compost use 3 or four large bins next to each other. This method requires “turning” — moving one bin’s content into the next bin several times – which is very hard labor. There are several YouTube videos that demonstrate this method.
John Quinn has a more complete guide and many more helpful details about the composting process. He has allowed us to share that guide with you that you can download as a PDF below or view directly from his site by clicking here.
3 Essential Elements for Perfect Compost
It’s time to let you in on a little secret: soil building done like this is the perfect lazy person’s gardening project. Unlike weeding or double-digging, which take lots of time and physical effort, a compost pile pretty much takes care of itself. Build it right, and it will transform your growing expectations.
1. Start with a container. We’re dealing with decomposing organic material, folks, so the structure doesn’t need to be fancy. You just need some sort of way to hold all of the ingredients together so the beneficial bacteria that break down the plant matter can heat up and work effectively.
Compost bins are of two types, stationary and rotating. Both types must have their contents turned periodically to provide oxygen and combine the decaying materials. Stationary bins can be as simple as well-ventilated cage made from wire fence sections or wooden crates assembled from a kit. A well-designed bin will retain heat and moisture, allowing for quicker results. Then there’s compost tumblers, easy to turn bins that speed up the process — compost in weeks, not months or years — by frequent oxygen infusions and heat retention. Select one based on how much plant matter (grass, leaves, weeds, stalks and stems from last year’s garden) you have at your disposal, how large your yard is, and how quickly you need to use the finished product.
When using the stationary bin method, locate the pile in a sunny location so that it has as much heat as possible. If it’s in the shade all day, decomposition will still happen, but it will be much slower, especially when freezing temps arrive in the fall. Compost tumblers can also take heat advantage of being placed in direct sunlight.
2. Get the ingredient mix right. A low-maintenance pile has a combination of brown and green plant matter, plus some moisture to keep the good bacteria humming. Shredded newspaper, wood chips and dry leaves are ideal for the brown elements; kitchen waste and grass clippings are perfect for the green add-ins.
Skip meat, fish and dairy for outdoor bins because they tend to attract pests like mice, raccoons and dogs. If you can’t bear the thought of sending your leftovers to the landfill, there are clever systems that turn them into superfood for your plants.
If you’re using a simple container, it’s best to start heaping the ingredients right on the ground, starting with chunky material like small branches or woody stems on the bottom for good airflow. Every time you add green material, add some brown as well to keep a good moisture balance and create air pockets.
It’s a good idea to give your new pile a jump-start to get the process started. There are several great activators that are ready to go right out of the box. No need to mix it in well. Fold in a couple shovelfuls of garden soil rich in organic matter and let the natural process begin. (See moisture below.)
3. Remember a few simple chores. Taking care of a compost pile is extremely basic, but a wee bit of care makes a huge difference. Add material regularly to give the happy bacteria some fresh food to consume and enough insulation to keep the process warm.
Turn the pile with a pitchfork or compost aerator every week or two to make sure that all of the materials are blended in and working together. After you’ve mixed things up, grab a handful to see if it’s slightly damp. Too little moisture will slow the decomposition process and too much will leave you with a slimy mess.
In a few months, your finished product should be a dark, crumbly soil that smells like fresh earth.
Avoid Common Mistakes
It’s hard to mess up compost, but we’re happy to offer a little direction so you get off to the best start.
Don’t start too small. The breakdown process needs a critical mass in order to do its job. However, certain bins work well for small amounts of material, so choose a product for your specific needs.
Keep things moist. It’s easy to walk away and forget that there’s an active process going on, so check the pile regularly, especially during hot, dry weather (see Managing Moisture).
Don’t depend on one material. A combination of different textures and nutrients created by the disintegration of many different plants will give your plants a gourmet diet that helps create disease and pest resistance. Think about it — a huge clump of grass clippings just sticks together in a huge mat that hangs around for years. Add some leaves, stir, and natural forces like water, air and heat go to work quickly!
Don’t get overwhelmed. This isn’t rocket science, so jump in and try, even if you don’t have a clue. You’ll soon see what works and what doesn’t.
Test your compost for viable weed seeds"
Keep a separate compost bin for weeds since weed seeds and weed roots will die only if your pile reaches 130 to 140 degrees for 72 hours. The is often difficult to achieve if your compost bin is too small, you don’t have the time and energy to turn it with a pitchfork, it’s not in full sun and you couldn't shred the ingredients. So test the comps for viable weeds by putting some in full sun and keeping it moist. If weeds sprout use the blanket method below to heat it up.
You can cover your compost bins with burlap or straw to raise the temperature. Brown matter on top works well at providing a heated “blanket”. If you peel back the “blanket” you should see steam. This is a good sign that your compost bin is heating up naturally. See this article for more details: "Destroy pathogens and weed seeds.”