Composting is a great practice to employ whether you are growing a vegetable garden or simply enjoy tending to your annual or perennial flowers. So, if you want to learn more about how to improve a garden with composting, keep reading! We are going to talk about everything you need to know about how to compost, why composting is good for your plants, what to include in your compost pile, and more!
What Is Composting?
Composting is, in the most simple terms, the decomposition of organic materials. So then, you may be wondering, what differentiates a compost pile from just an ordinary pile of trash? Composting for gardening is different in the way that the materials that are put into your compost pile are intentional. You can’t just throw anything and everything into your compost bin and expect it to be successful. However, if done right, a compost pile will provide you with fertile soil that is rich in organic material and can be put to use to benefit your garden.
How Composting Improves the Soil
Our soil here in Colorado is naturally very rich in clay content. This type of soil is not conducive to growing much, and will not result in healthy plants, whether it's garden vegetables, trees, shrubs, annual flowers, perennial plants, grass, or any other type of live plant material. This type of soil is so hard to successfully grow things in that most people often end up entirely replacing their soil with a high quality topsoil. Or, you can also simply amend your soil with compost to help improve its consistency! Below are a few of the ways in which composting will help improve your soil.
Adds Nutrients to the Soil
First off, our clay-heavy soils do not contain a lot of nutrients. So, mixing your finished compost in with the soil helps introduce nutrients to the soil that are necessary for your plants to grow well.
Help it Drain Better
Our clay-heavy soil also does not drain well and turns into a sticky sort of mud when it gets wet. Most plants need well-draining soil to stay healthy, as waterlogged roots can easily rot and cause the plant to die. Adding compost improves the consistency of your soil, helping it drain more freely!
Help It Retain the Right Amount of Moisture
In addition to helping your soil drain freely, adding compost to your soil also enables the ground to hold onto just the right amount of moisture. Too much moisture or too little moisture are both not good for your plants. Organic materials such as compost hold onto the moisture your plants will need while letting the excess water drain away.
Improves the Density of Your Soil
Clay-heavy soils are also very dense. This makes it difficult for the roots of your plants to permeate the soil, resulting in shallow and unstable root systems that are unable to withstand the elements. Amending your soil with compost helps encourage a more fluffy consistency, which allows the roots of your plants to dig deep and grow strong!
Attracts Beneficial Bugs
Having organic matter in your soil also helps attract insects that are beneficial to your soil and to your plants such as earthworms! These beneficial insects help further break down organic materials in the soil and also increase airflow in the soil through the tunnels they burrow through the ground.
Tools Needed for Composting
The beauty of composting is that you really don’t need a lot of tools to have an effective compost pile. You can make it as basic or as elaborate as you want to. Some people like to have compost tumblers (rotating compost bins), while others just like to dig a hole in the ground and use that as their compost bin. At the bare minimum, it would be helpful to have a shovel, gardening gloves, and a hose. You may need some other supplies depending on what sort of container you choose to use, but we will get into that more below!
How To Build a Compost Pile
Now let's get on to learning how to compost! Compost for gardening is really very simple, and if you follow the steps below, you are sure to have a successful compost pile in no time!
Pick Your Location
The first thing to consider when getting ready to build your compost bin is location. While the smell of a compost bin should never be overwhelming or unbearable, a slight odor is to be expected. Because of this, you may not want to place your compost bin within smelling distance of your patio (or your neighbor's patio) or any other spaces you like to enjoy. If you have pets, you will also want to consider a location or container that your pets will not be able to get into. A convenient, yet out of sight location is ideal, though keep in mind that you will want it located within reach of a water source, as you will need to periodically add water to your compost.
Here are a couple of ideas:
Build an enclosed area (approximately 3 square feet depending on the size of your operation) out of repurposed wood or concrete blocks
Invest in a compost tumbler
Dig a hole in your garden specifically for your compost
Build your pile directly on the ground and use chicken wire to keep it contained
Turn an old trashcan or plastic bin into your compost bin
Add Your Ingredients
This is the fun part! Compost is made up of “greens” and “browns.” The greens are any materials that are rich in nitrogen. These materials add moisture to your pile and encourage decomposition. Some examples of your greens include kitchen scraps such as banana peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, veggie scraps, grass clippings, and the like.
The browns are materials that are rich in carbon. Though they break down slower than the greens, they help encourage airflow throughout your compost pile and add a bit of substance to the mix. Brown materials include items such as old newspapers, old paper towel rolls, small twigs, cardboard, brown paper bags, egg cartons, dried leaves, and the like.
You can also add ingredients such as manure or compost starter to your compost pile to help get it going and add even more nutrients. It is important to use only manure from herbivores, as manure from carnivores is not healthy to use in your compost and can spread parasites and diseases.
Bugs Aid in Composting
Another thing you can add to your pile is earthworms! They will have an absolute hay day in your bin and will help speed up the break-down process. If you build your pile directly on the ground, worms and other beneficial bugs will be attracted to it naturally. If you are using a bin, you can buy worms to add to the mix!
Find the Right Balace
Adding these materials to your compost bin in the right ratio is key to a successful compost bin! You will want to aim for 1/3 of the pile consisting of your greens, and the other 2/3s of the pile consisting of your browns. If your pile has too many greens, it may begin to smell, and if your pile has too many browns, it will take forever to break down. Maintaining the right balance of nitrogen and carbon will help speed up the breakdown process and give you a well-balanced compost.
Once you have combined your greens and browns, you can even throw some of your current soil in the mix to help keep some of the smells down and help build heat within your pile. You will also want to add a little bit of moisture (not too much or else your pile won't decompose properly!). If you are building your compost pile on the ground, simply layer up your different components until you’ve used all your scraps. If you are using a bin of some sort, simply throw it all in and mix it up with your shovel!
Maintain Your Compost Pile
Now that you’ve added all the ingredients, simply leave it alone and let it do its thing! You can check on it every one to two weeks and give it a nice stir, bringing the materials on the outer edges into the center of the pile to help with the decomposition process. Mixing your pile periodically will also help oxygenate the pile and will give you a chance to assess the progress of the pile and see if it needs more greens or browns added to it, or maybe if it needs a bit more moisture.
Keep it Covered
No matter where you keep your compost pile, it will be important to keep it covered. Your pile will generate heat as it breaks down, and this heat aids in further decomposition, so covering the pile will help hold in the heat, which will benefit the progress of your pile. Keeping your pile covered will also help keep unwanted animals out of the pile, will help you control the amount of moisture that is introduced to your pile, and will help keep smells contained. You can cover your pile with a number of different things, such as a trash can lid, tarp, piece of old carpet, or any other material that will not blow away in the wind and that will help hold heat in and keep excess moisture out.
How To Know When Your Compost is Complete
You will know your compost is complete when all your kitchen scraps and old cardboard boxes have transformed into a dark brown material with the consistency of soil. It should be crumbly, moist, and fluffy! You may still have some recognizable chunks of banana peel or egg carton floating around, and that’s ok! Simply leave it in the compost bin and it will continue to break down.
When your compost has all but finished breaking down, don’t forget to keep feeding it! Periodically adding more greens and browns to your compost pile will help make sure that your supply of compost never runs out. We recommend keeping a container with a lid somewhere in your kitchen. Whenever you have vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, or other compostable materials, throw them in the bucket. Once your compost container becomes full or begins to smell, take it outside and add it to the compost bin, making sure not to forget to mix it all together.
How To Make Sure Your Compost Is Balanced
The more you work with your compost, the better you will get at finding the right balance. As we said above, it is best to aim for 1/3 of your pile consisting of the greens, and the other 2/3s of the pile consisting of the browns. This may sound simple enough, but it can get hard to keep track of the ratio of greens to browns if you are just throwing scraps in periodically. Here are some tips that may help!
If your pile starts to stink, this means it is either too wet or has too many greens. In this case, add more browns to the pile and mix it all together. This will balance out the greens, soak up excess moisture, and encourage airflow throughout the pile.
If your pile doesn’t seem to be breaking down at all, this is because it either has too many browns or is too dry. Try adding some more greens and lightly spray it with some water. Mix it all together and give it a week or two to start breaking down.
The beauty of composting is that you can always make adjustments. As long as you are using the right materials, you really can’t go wrong! Give yourself some time to get a feel for your compost pile. You likely won't get it perfect on the first try, but this doesn’t mean that your pile is a waste! Simply add more or less of one component, see how your pile reacts, and make more adjustments.
What Not to Compost
Really the only way you can go wrong with composting is by adding materials to your pile that do not compost well or that could introduce contaminants to your compost. Always avoid adding things such as meat or dairy products, as this will just rot and attract unwanted animals to your yard. Waste from carnivorous animals (your dog's poo) also should never be added to the compost bin. Chicken, sheep, or cow manure is safe since these animals are herbivores, but the waste from carnivores can contain parasites and diseases which you really will not want in your compost. Similarly, avoid putting any plant cuttings that may be diseased or that had any contact with pesticides. Adding such things to your compost will just transmit any diseases or chemicals onto your garden plants, which will make them either sickly or unhealthy for you to ingest.
Here is a list of common items that you should avoid adding to your compost bin:
Meat or fish scraps
Waste from carnivorous animals (no dog or cat poo please)
Grass clippings if chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used
Glossy coated paper or cardboard
Wood shavings from treated wood
Plant material that had any sort of pest, disease, or other sort of ailment
Weeds (this will just spread more weeds)
Using Compost for Gardening
Your compost, once it is fully decomposed, will work wonders in your garden! Depending on the amount of compost you have created, you can till a significant amount of it into your garden beds at the beginning of the planting season when the soil is warm enough to dig into. If your composting operation is not quite that large, simply incorporate some compost when you plant your garden starts. You can dig a hole that is twice as large as it needs to be, fill it partially with compost, place your plant in the hole, and fill in the remaining space around your plant with compost and soil. This will ensure that your plant is surrounded by rich, healthy soil that will help get it off to a strong start. You can use it in the same manner when planting your annual flowers, houseplants, perennial plants, trees, shrubs, and any other live plant material. Doing so will ensure that your plants have healthy soil to grow in, will give them access to essential nutrients, will ensure that their roots are able to establish well, will help the soil drain freely while also retaining an adequate amount of moisture, and will encourage a healthy population of beneficial insects.
How To Compost
We hope this information on composting for gardening has been helpful and inspiring! If you have any other questions on how to compost or how to improve a garden with composting, please let us know!