Ready, Set, Compost
Composting is both an art and a science. But don’t let the science scare you. Composting can be boiled down to a few key steps.
Create layers: A compost pile is like a sandwich: The layers work best together. The first layer should be about 6 inches of dry, brown materials like leaves, corn stalks and broken sticks or branches. Because this hodgepodge isn’t compact, air can circulate between the materials. Next is a 6-inch green layer, including grass clippings and kitchen waste (vegetable scraps). Then add a 2-inch layer of manure or already decomposed compost and finish with topsoil. Repeat the layers, adding water to the dry layers, until you have a 4-foot-tall pile. Layers create insulation and a balance of carbon and nitrogen, the two elements needed to feed the micro-organisms that do the decomposing.
Keep it hot: While the layers are decomposing, the bacteria and micro-organisms generate heat. Purchase a compost thermometer from your local garden center or just hold your hand over the top of the pile to feel the heat radiating. If it feels cool (under 50 degrees F.), the pile is likely too dry. Add water until the material is moist.
Turn it: When it’s 140 to 160 degrees F. in the center, it’s time to turn the pile and mix the layers with a pitchfork or rototiller. You may need to turn it every few weeks.
Sniff it: If you notice a weird smell while your pile is decomposing, it could signal an issue. Keep a nose out for the smell of ammonia (from too much of green material) or the smell of rotten eggs (from not enough air circulation). If you notice your compost isn't fermenting at all, your pile is probably too dry.
Your compost is ready when the material is dark and crumbly. Work the compost into your garden soil before sowing seeds or use it as a seed-starting mix.
One of the biggest benefits of using compost is improved soil structure, which helps retain water and nutrients so that plants can take in what they need when they need it. Making your own compost also has the added benefit of reducing landfill waste.