Organic Gardening For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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Compost is material, usually made up of yard waste and food scraps, containing nutrients that improve your soil. You can buy it, but making your own compost saves money. The process isn't complicated, and commercial composting bins and containers on the market make composting a mess-free, hassle-free process.

When you make compost, you create a pile of material to be composted, mix the materials thoroughly at the correct ratios of carbon and nitrogen and keep the pile watered just enough to keep it moist but with enough air to breathe. Using this method, you can enjoy finished compost in a month or two.

How to build a good compost pile

A well-constructed and well-maintained compost pile provides the proper amount of water and oxygen for aerobic bacteria, which work quickly, generating heat as a byproduct of their activity. This heat helps material break down quickly and kills many diseases, insects, and weed seeds.

Here are the steps on how to build a compost pile:

  1. Choose a shady location that's out of the way.

    The soil under the site should be well drained.

  2. Make (or buy) a bin.

    You can build your own or buy a commercial home composting unit.

    Make a simple wooden bin.

    Make a simple wooden bin.

    Commercial composters make composting easy.

    Commercial composters make composting easy.
  3. Add dry materials.

    Add a 6-inch layer of dry organic matter, such as hay, straw, old leaves, or untreated sawdust, to the bottom of the container.

  4. Add fresh materials.

    Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of fresh organic matter, such as grass clippings, manure, table scraps, or even high-nitrogen fertilizer like cottonseed meal, on top of the dry layer.

  5. Keep adding these layers, watering each one as you go, until the pile is 4 to 5 feet tall and fills the bin.

    A smaller pile won't heat up well enough to break down the materials, and a larger pile can be difficult to manage.

  6. In two days, mix the layers thoroughly.

    Particle size should be varied; smaller particles hasten decomposition.

  7. Cover the pile with a tarp to preserve moisture.

    The pile will start to cook within a week.

  8. Keep the pile moist by watering it periodically.

    Dig into the pile about 1 foot to see whether it's moist. If not, water the pile thoroughly, but not so much that it's soggy.

  9. Turn the pile when it cools down.

    Using a garden fork, remove the outside layers and put them aside. Remove the inside layers into another pile and then switch. Place the outside layers in the center of the new pile and the inside layers along the outside of the new pile. Loosen any matted clumps.

  10. Let it cook again.

    When the pile is cool, turn it again. You should have finished compost after two to three turnings. The finished product should be cool and crumbly, with a dark color and earthy smell.

What goes into a compost pile, and what doesn't

What you put in the compost pile is up to you. Here's a short list of possibilities:
  • Hay, straw, pine needles, leaves, yard trimmings, and weeds

  • Kitchen scraps (eggshells, old bread, vegetable and fruit scraps)

  • Manure from non-meat eaters (poultry, horse, cow, rabbit, sheep, goat)

  • Sawdust and small wood chips

  • Shredded newspaper

Not everything can go into a compost pile. Don't add
  • Sawdust

  • Fish or meat scraps

  • Fatty or oily scraps

  • Charcoal ash

  • Manure from meat-eaters (human, dog, cat, lizard)

  • Pressure-treated wood, chemically treated wood

  • Weeds with mature seed heads

  • Diseased plants or trimmings

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Ann Whitman is the author of the first edition of Organic Gardening For Dummies.

Suzanne DeJohn is an editor with the National Gardening Association, the leading garden-based educational nonprofit organization in the U.S. NGA's programs and initiatives highlight the opportunities for plant-based education in schools, communities, and backyards across the country. These include award-winning Web sites garden.org and kidsgardening.org.

The National Gardening Association (NGA) is committed to sustaining and renewing the fundamental links between people, plants, and the earth. Founded in 1972 as “Gardens for All” to spearhead the community garden movement, today’s NGA promotes environmental responsibility, advances multidisciplinary learning and scientifi c literacy, and creates partnerships that restore and enhance communities.
NGA is best known for its garden-based curricula, educational journals, international initiatives, and several youth garden grant programs. Together these reach more than 300,000 children nationwide each year. NGA’s Web sites, one for home gardeners and another for those who garden with kids, build community and offer a wealth of custom content.

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