How to Compost and Build a Compost Heap E-mail
Wednesday, 09 May 2012 10:00  |  Written by Amy Kaplan | Article

Compost Pile. photo by Alan LevineMaking compost in your backyard is not time-consuming, unsanitary or difficult. It just takes a bit of education and preparation. Backyard composting not only improves your soil’s fertility and workability, it saves you money at the garden-supply store as you'll no longer need to buy fertilizers—artificial or otherwise. It also reduces the strain on your local landfill and helps to lessen the amount of chemicals being produced and added to the environment.

Advantages of Composting
Chemical fertilizers are made from nonrenewable, carbon-footprint heavy, fossil fuels. They have to be manufactured, packaged and shipped. Compare that environmental nightmare with making your own, natural fertilizer from items at hand (that would otherwise clog landfills). It's simple, fun and healthier for you and the planet. Plus, it's easy on the budget.

And, boy, will your garden love it. Adding compost, substantially increases your soil's fertility in several ways: It adds macro- and micronutrients, improves the structure of the soil, increases water retention and buffers the soil's pH.

What You’ll Need
To make compost you need five things: organic matter, air, moisture, heat and a place where all these things can work together to cause decomposition. Organic matter can be any plant material that decomposes easily and that your household produces or discards. Some examples are vegetable debris from your kitchen, coffee grounds, tea bags, paper towels, shredded newspapers, dead vegetable and flower plants, grass clippings, leaves, weeds, etc.

You can also add horse, cow, chicken, sheep or goat manure to your compost heap. Mixing in these manures is safe because these animals are vegetarians, so there is no protein matter in their waste. The wonderful thing about animal manure is that it heats up the compost pile very efficiently, thus causing the pile to “cook” faster. This fuels the decomposition that produces compost. Note: Animal flesh and bones—and manure from animals that eat solely or mostly protein—are not usable in a compost heap (without special treatment) because protein breaks down too slowly and attracts pests and disease.

Container Matters
One key consideration in composting is how the compost will be contained, if at all. The options vary from simply adding your debris to a pile—maybe surrounding the heap with four posts and chicken wire or wood slats—to building or buying a solid container.

You can keep your composting simple by piling all your organic matter and lots of straw, hay and leaves in a big mound in your backyard, keeping your heap moist (not wet) and turning it regularly to assure that it remains aerated and weed-free. This big-pile method is more appropriate in the country than in a small backyard, but you can still do it this way.

A more efficient and neighbor-friendly approach is to keep your compost enclosed. You can build your own container or buy a special one designed just for composting. A ready-made unit is an excellent choice for a novice who is intimidated by the whole process of turning garbage into garden gold. And they are relatively cheap when the cost of materials and time are factored in. Compost bins and supplies are available at most home and garden stores and online.

Care and Feeding
After deciding on containment, you need to feed your pile. You can keep a bucket in the kitchen for all of your non-protein refuse and dump it on your compost heap every few days. Odor should not be a problem as long as you empty and clean the bucket frequently. It helps to occasionally set it outside to get some air. Also, metal is less odoriferous than plastic, which holds the scent of whatever is stored in it. You may want to keep the bucket out of the way, however, because it isn’t all that pleasant to look at. A top will help in this regard—and for minimizing unpleasant aromas.

To add bulk to your compost pile, be on the lookout for grass clippings, leaves and any other garden waste that neighbors may be discarding. More organic matter equals better compost and less refuse going to a landfill. Every few months, it’s helpful to visit the local feed store to get a few bales of rotting hay and straw to add.

At least every 3-4 weeks you should turn and water your pile. It’s exciting to watch as a big mound of refuse reaching nearly to the top of the container reduces itself by half in a month's time. And what is left from all that unusable waste? Nutrient rich soil!

Every time you turn your pile, you should add the most decomposed stuff (found at the bottom) to your garden. The new soil at the lowest level of your heap is a natural home for earthworms that love to eat the matter, so each time you add compost to your garden, you'll be adding worms, too. Every organic garden should have bucketfuls of worms as they aerate the soil. For convenience, you might want to place your compost heap right next to your garden beds.

Composting is rewarding because you save money on fertilizers and it’s a marvelous way to aid the environment. You’ll reduce chemical pollution and the need for landfills—while helping to rebuild the Earth's soil from the ground up, backyard by backyard.

Additional resources:
Compost Bin Buyer’s Guide
Breaking Down the Bones: How to Compost Meat and Other Animal Products:
Natural Garden Pest Control
Garbage, Worms and Me: The Many Joys of Composting
The Many Merits of Mulching
Green With Envy: How to Have an Eco Friendly Lawn Your Neighbors Admire
How to Plant a Vegetable Garden
'Take Me to the Box of Bugs!'—On Children, Composting and the Future of the Planet
How to Compost Indoors—for the Urban Gardener
Other Environmental Issues

[If you have any composting tips or stories, please comment below. - Ed.]

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Comments (2)add
Written by Tube Bird Feeder , June 02, 2010
Great post. Thanks!
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Written by Susan , April 16, 2010
Thanks Willow. I'm a compost fanatic, always looking for ways to improve my process. Great article.
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Eco Tip

Become a vegetarian or vegan, or at least eat less meat. Meat is a big waster of water and energy—and generator of greenhouse gasses. It also exacerbates world hunger. One acre of land yields almost 18 times as much usable protein from plant versus animal sources—356 pounds if used to grow soybeans, 20 pounds if used to raise cattle for slaughter. More tips...

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