Composting Basics

By Mike Lorenc, Conservation Garden Park

All good gardening, whether vegetable garden or landscaping, starts with healthy soil. The best way to make soil healthy is to add organic matter, and compost is the highest-quality organic matter. Best of all, compost is something homeowners can create themselves using recycled kitchen waste. If the idea of making your own compost is intimidating, don’t worry! It’s far easier than you may believe. There is a science to composting, but nature will do the hard work for you if you provide a few simple things to make the process work.

Ingredients

At its most basic level, compost needs four things: greens, browns, air, and water, all in an out-of-the-way “pile” in the garden. Greens are things like salad scraps, fruit, coffee grounds, grass clippings, garden waste or poultry manure. Think “fresh” plant materials. These are high in nitrogen. Browns are things like shredded paper products, cardboard, dried leaves, twigs, or other dried plant waste. These are higher in carbon.

Process

Start the process with a ratio of roughly one part green to two parts brown. This pile can be started any number of ways: a plain pile, a cylinder made of fence or chicken wire, a store-bought composter, or event old pallets. Just make sure the walls aren’t solid—it needs good air circulation. Keep adding your greens and browns until the pile is about 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet. It’ll work with a smaller pile, but that 4-foot square will create the mass needed to generate sufficient heat to break down the ingredients.

Using a pitchfork, turn the pile as thoroughly as you can. Turning the pile gets air into the compost to support the microorganisms and worms that will do the decomposing. We don’t want to turn the pile too often because the decomposition process generates heat inside the pile that is needed to break down the organic matter and kill weed seeds. Moisture is also important, so give the pile a good soaking once a week or so. Make sure the water soaks all the way into the middle of the pile, like a wet sponge.

Troubleshooting

  • If you’re getting an ammonia smell, you have too many greens. Add more browns. Keep the composting ratio at 1 green to 2 browns.
  • If it doesn’t seem to be breaking down fast enough, or is cold, you need more greens. A compost thermometer, one that is at least 20 inches long, will monitor the temperature in the middle. To work, the center of the pile needs to be at least 130 degrees, but a temperature of 145 degrees or hotter is needed to kill most weed seeds.
  • Keep the compost materials as small as possible. For example, mow over dried leaves, as small pieces break down faster.

While not much composting occurs during the winter, it’s a great time to keep building the pile to increase mass. The compost is done when you can no longer identify the original ingredients. To learn more, take the USU Extension composting class at the Conservation Garden Park in West Jordan on Saturday, March 17th. Register for a seat at: http://conservationgardenpark.org/events

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