But if you’re not composting, I’ve got some important info for you later in this post.
Learn from your mistakes
(or from mine)
First, I want to tell you how NOT to make a compost pile. I made some pretty dumb mistakes with my first attempt at composting.
The first time I tried to make a compost pile 40 years ago, it was a 99% failure.
The 1% success was that I learned how NOT to do it.
My mom had just brought home a copy of Organic Gardening Magazine for the first time and there were several articles that mentioned having a compost pile.
What a great idea, I thought. I was so enthusiastic to get started that I didn’t take time to figure out how to go about it. Oops!
So without really knowing what I was doing, but determined nonetheless, I trimmed my climbing roses, cut them into 3’ to 4’ lengths, put them in a big pile and covered them with a big black plastic tarp. I was pretty pleased with all my hard work. I had my first compost pile.
Or so I thought.
I didn’t add anything else to it. I didn’t open it up and turn it. I just left everything under that tarp all summer…with great expectations.
Was I ever disappointed that fall! I couldn’t imagine why it didn’t work. And instead of getting compost, I had to throw it all in the garbage. Yuck! What a mess!
Well, that was many moons ago (half of which were without a garden, alas). But for the past 20 years, my good ole compost pile out back has been the key to my garden’s success.
To have a thriving organic garden, you must have compost.
Hence, my OG 365 Gardening Tip #12: Build and maintain your own compost pile: year…after year…after year.
Too many choices?
Looking at garden catalogues is sort of like trying to pick what you want to eat from a Chinese take-out menu; there are so many choices of composters and from their descriptions, they all sound great.
Different types of plastic bins, wire bins, wood bins, tumblers on a frame, tumblers you roll around in the yard.
And don’t forget the do-it-yourself possibilities. Make them out of wooden pallets, hay bales, or just put everything in a big pile (that’s what I do).
And then there is worm composting, which is done indoors in special containers. And even special indoor composters.
How do you decide what composter is right for you?
This post is too short to tell you everything you need to know about buying a maintaining a successful compost pile. Hundreds of books have been written. Thousands of magazine articles and blog posts add to all the advice.
You’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and do a little research to see what will work best for you. There are wonderful resources online, in your public library or maybe a gardening friend can help get you started.
If you already have a compost pile going, it’s a good idea to re-evaluate what your current needs are instead of just doing things the same all the time.
There is no way I could have enough compost if I were using the same approach I started out with 20 years ago when my mother-in-law sent me one of those upright, rigid, black plastic composters with the little door at the bottom.
I was delighted and quickly started adding kitchen scraps and trimming’s from the garden.
That first summer of gardening, I had very few beds and so there wasn’t a whole lot to put in the composter.
And I have to tell you, I was gosh darn excited when I got my first batch of compost. Just like in all the ads!
But in a couple of years, I had expanded my garden and that black bin was suddenly way too small. So I concocted a much larger area, about 4’ x 6’, with some chicken wire-ish mesh stuff and filled that baby up with clippings from the garden, etc.
It was perfect, for a while. Jump ahead two or three years and I needed even more space, so I cleared out a section in the back corner of my property and created a space big enough for three big composting piles.
Now I have a pile to add to. A pile that is “cooking.” And a pile of mature compost ready to add to my garden soil and containers.
So, let’s get back to how to choose a compost bin or system that’s right for you.
Here are 5 questions you must ask yourself to help figure it all out.
1. How much material will you have to compost?
If you don’t have enough from your yard and kitchen, think about tapping into your neighbors’ resources.
I have a friend who collected all the grass clippings and yard waste from several houses near by and had excellent compost as a result. And it all went in his garden.
Or you might make a deal with a nearby grocer to get some of his produce that didn’t sell. But it should be organic produce.
Here I must caution you, however, you really don’t want grass clippings from a yard that had chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. That would just end up in your compost and then in your garden and eventually into the food you eat.
If you don’t have a lot of things to compost, one of the smaller bins will work just fine.
2. How much compost can you use?
Hey, you’ve got to be realistic. Some organic gardeners may say you can never have too much compost. But you need the right balance with how much you make and how much you can use.
I have found over the years, that if I am composting everything from the garden, the leaves in the fall and kitchen scraps, I usually have enough compost to add to the garden each year.
Just for the record, the leaves and trimmings, grass clippings, etc. you put on the compost pile will shrink in volume by about 70%. So take that into consideration.
And what if you DO have too much? Well, share it with your gardening friends, of course.
3. Will you compost outside, inside or both?
Believe it or not, there are some viable options for composting inside. And without stinking up the house.
- Worm composting—where you feed your kitchen scraps to a bunch of red wiggler worms in a specially designed bin (you can buy one or make your own). But those worms can only handle so much per week. If you have a lot of vegetable trimmings, this may not be sufficient.
- Indoor composter—a new option on the market that composts small amounts of kitchen vegetable waste. This is great if you live in an apartment and have just a balcony or terrace with a little bit of garden going.
- Bokashi composting—a Japanese system that uses a bacteria to basically pickles your compost. I know, it sound weird. I haven’t tried this, but check it out if you think it might be an option. You do this in small batches inside or on your porch. It’s designed for yardless homes and apartments with limited space.
And of course outside composting gives you lots of options:
- upright bins—you can continually add to the bin from the top and get finished compost from the bottom. They can only hold so much material. Good for small yards. Or you can have several.
- tumbler bins—Do you want compost ASAP? This may be your solution. Compost can be ready in 14 days in some cases. But you do one batch at a time. There are different sizes available.
- bins made of wire, wood, hay bales, concrete blocks—you can make them any size you need and have as many as you want.
- just a plane old pile—this is what I do. I just let Mother Nature do her magic.
You may end up using a combination of these methods. A lot of gardeners have a worm composter inside for their kitchen scraps during the winter.
4. How much space do you have for your composting system and where will you put it?
It’s one thing to imagine all the possibilities as you look at all the cool composting bins in the catalogues, or read about a 3-pile system that takes up a 4’ x 12’ piece of your real estate.
It’s another thing to face reality and see what will actually work in your situation.
I used to day-dream about a certain type of composter that had really awesome advertisements. I would drool every time I saw the ads for it.
But it would not have worked in my yard. Darn!
So be realistic about what will work for you—how much room you need and where you’ll put it.
5. How much money and time are you willing to spend on your compost pile?
The glossy pages in catalogues lure you in. The promises of perfect compost impel you to spend big bucks for various types of specialized bins and systems.
But what is really necessary to have good compost?
You have to decide what you actually need based on your individual situation. And a store-bought system may be the perfect solution. But maybe you can make your own with much less expense and with less plastic.
Frankly, it bugs me that so many compost bins are made out of plastic. I know, it’s recycled and all. But, it doesn’t seem too “organic,” if you know what I mean. And I can’t help but wonder if any of that plastic eventually leeches into the compost.
And then there’s the time element. A compost pile does not require a whole lot of extra time. But you have to make a commitment to what needs to be done. Just like anything.
You have to do something with the kitchen scraps anyway. So take the extra minute to walk them out to the compost pile instead of putting them in the garbage pail. This is not a big time suck.
You have to do something with all the leaves and trimmings from your yard. It might take a little more time to haul everything to the composting department, but do it. Your garden will be all the better for it.
And you may need to get a pitchfork and turn the pile over once in a while or spin the tumbler every so often.
It’s totally worth the effort
The more you do it, the better you get. So, keep track of what you learn in your Gardener’s Journal.
And there are so many uses for all the wonderful compost you make.
The whole point of making compost is to add it to your garden soil.
- You can mix it into your soil every time you plant something
- Add an inch or two of compost on top of your garden beds each year as mulch. You don’t even need to dig it in; just lay it on top and let the earthworms do their magic.
- Add compost to the bottom of your pots for container gardening
- Make compost tea to “fertilize” your plants. There are different ways to do this, so do a little research.
- Share or sell it to friends–if for some reason you have too much. I’ve never had that problem.
Compost is the very best soil amendment on earth. Mother Nature has been making it for thousands of years. So we might as well take a few lessons from her. It will make your plants healthier as well as more productive and your fruits and vegetables will taste so much better.
I hope this has been helpful. As always, please share your thoughts below. And I’d love to know what kind of composting system you have. What works best for you?
Here’s to the magic in your compost pile,James Organic Gardening 365 Helping you to get the most out of your garden all year long P. S. For the complete series of OG 365 Timeless Gardening Tips, click here.
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