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Composting 101 – Making Black Gold for Your Garden

The first compost pile I ever built, well, I really didn’t. When we first moved to Oregon over 20 years, my neighbor asked me why I wasn’t composting my kitchen scraps. I replied, “because I haven’t had time to build a compost bin.” She laughed and said that I didn’t need a compost bin to make compost, and that I should spread my kitchen scraps and garden trimmings in the empty garden beds (it was late fall), cover the beds with straw and it will have composted by spring.

Organic Compost

Compost Ingredients

Compost happens to organic waste regardless. The biodegradable yard and kitchen wastes will decompose whether you pile it in a hand-built or commercial bin, turn it in a composter, mound it in the corners of your yard, or do as I did and spread it out on garden beds. It simply takes longer to decompose the less a pile is turned. The end result is a multi-purpose, nutrient-rich compost that can be used to fertilize, mulch, prevent weeds, deter disease, and add organic matter to the soil.

The ingredients to great compost include the right mix of “green” materials (nitrogen sources) and “brown” materials (carbon sources) along with soil, water, and air. Green materials from the yard include grass clippings, green leaves and plant trimmings along with animal manures and hair. Green kitchen materials include fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags. As for the brown sources, think of dry garden trimmings and leaves, pine needles, wood chips or sawdust, and shredded paper products.

Materials that should never be added to your compost pile include fat, meat, human or pet wastes, chemically-treated hair or wood products, colored or glossy paper products, invasive plants, weeds, or diseased plant material.

How to Make Compost

  1. For hand-built piles, start your bottom layer with bulky “brown” materials, such as branches, twigs, or dried corn stalks.
  2. Create alternating layers of three parts brown material (carbon) to one part green material (nitrogen), with a thin layer of soil in-between each addition.
  3. Continue adding layers until your bin or composter is nearly full, then finish up with a 4- to 6-inch layer of brown material.

Both water and air are needed for quality compost. Sprinkle enough water to keep the pile slightly moist at all times–similar to the feel of a damp sponge. The added layers of brown or woody material supplies the air to aerate the compost, as does turning the pile. Your compost is considered “cooked and ready to use” once the pile has settled and the interior is no longer hot. The remaining soil-like substance should be dark and crumbly with a pleasant earthy aroma.

Black-Gold-CompostCompost that is ready for use can take from eight weeks or up to a year. It all depends on your ingredients and method of composting. Cutting, chopping, or shredding bulky or large materials into smaller pieces will help speed up the process. So will turning (aerating) your compost every now and then, which adds that crucial element of air. I still occasionally pile my kitchen and yard wastes on empty beds. But I mostly rely on the convenience of making compost in a variety of ready-made composters.

Here are two of my favorites from Kmart’s online store:

Lifetime 80-gallon Compost Tumbler: This composter features an ingenious tumbler design that easily turns on its axis for balanced rotation. And the internal aeration bar mixes compost and provides air flow. This one is ideally suited for making big batches of compost at one time.

Exaco ThermoQuick® 110 Gallon Compost Bin: This one is great for adding small amounts of materials in a continuous cycle. And you can “harvest” compost in a continuous cycle as well since the finished compost comes out the bottom while the materials in the upper part of the bin continue cooking.
-  Kris Wetherbee

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kris wetherbee



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  1. Thank you for another great article! You show how easy it is to compost. Many people I've talked to think composting is difficult. Like you said, you can just throw it on top of the soil besides a pile or some compost bin. When my crops are done and cold is setting in I will bury my compost in the ground. Dig a hole, empty compost bucket (we keep under our sink) in the hole, cover with a little soil and use the shovel to chop the material and add a little soil. Then cover with the dirt you scooped out. By the time spring arrives it's composted and ready for plants!

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