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Starting a compost pile

If you're feeling a little adventurous, you can easily produce nutrient-rich compost in your own backyard. We'll show you how.

Here at the nursery, we spend a lot of time discussing the value of good compost. Properly used, compost reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers by introducing recycled organic matter and beneficial organisms like worms and fungal mycelium back into nutrient-depleted soil. It also helps the soil better retain moisture, improving plants' access to those nutrients. No wonder gardeners call this stuff "black gold!"

Customers occasionally ask us for advice on how to start their own compost piles at home. It isn't a difficult process, but if you don't follow the proper steps, you could end up with more mess than you bargained for. In this post, we'll discuss some tips for making sure yours produces good compost instead of a smelly garbage heap.

Learn what is (and isn't) compostable

Compostable materials are typically referred to by colors. Brown materials include dry leaves, branches, stems, sawdust from untreated lumber, tree bark, shredded newspaper, wood ash, pine needles, and the like. Green materials include live plant remains (green leaves, grass clippings, etc.), manure, and certain food scraps (coffee grounds, banana peels, egg shells, etc.). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes a very helpful guide to help you pick out what can and can't go on your pile. Take the time to study it now, because adding the wrong types of material to your compost pile can make life difficult for you. At best, it will make your pile a smelly mess. At worst, it can harm the beneficial microorganisms helping to break down the "good" material into useful soil.

Select an appropriate location

You want to think carefully about where to locate your compost pile. At a minimum, you want a flat, well-drained site with convenient access to water and at least some daily sunlight--since this promotes the activity of thermophilic microorganisms which help break down organic materials in your pile. Keep in mind that convenience of access is likely to be a big factor in determining how regularly you keep up with the maintenance of your pile. At the same time, consider odor intrusion and the potential for it being an "eyesore" around existing or planned outdoor living spaces. Finally, be sure to check whether any local ordinances or regulations govern backyard composting locations before getting started. You don't want to be forced to relocate it later!

Decide whether to contain your compost

Once you have your location, you may want to consider the pros and cons of containment. Containers range from simple open-style fenced areas to specially manufacturing composting bins and offer several advantages, such as keeping your pile neat and relatively attractive while helping preserve heat and preventing animals from tearing into it. However, an open pile is far simpler to manage, costs nothing to establish, and theoretically shouldn't attract animals unless it is improperly maintained. And depending on the kind of container used, an open pile may be easier to "turn" by hand.

Build your pile in layers

One of the biggest mistakes people make with backyard composting is treating it like a basic trash heap--tossing everything in at once rather than layering it properly. Especially when you're getting a new pile started, you need to structure it well. Begin with a base layer of coarse material like branches and twigs to allow oxygen to circulate up into the pile. Then, add to the pile in alternating layers of "brown" and "green" materials. Each layer should be approximately 6-10 inches high. As this might suggest, it can be helpful to keep separate compost bins (material on its way to the compost pile) for browns and greens, in case the "collection rate" for one outpaces the other. Also, you want to be sure that kitchen scraps (egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps) are topped with leaves or other acceptable "dry" items (shredded newspaper, straw, small pieces of cardboard, etc.) right away, as this will discourage animals and help with odor.

Moisten and turn regularly

In order to do their composting magic, the microorganisms in your pile will need three things in regular supply: moisture, heat, and oxygen. The sun will take care of the heat during the warm seasons, but you'll want to gently water the pile from time to time--just enough to keep it moist (not wet) between rain showers. You'll also need to "turn" the pile every few weeks to aerate the center and encourage even heating. Beyond that, it takes patience. The complete breakdown process can take anywhere from several months to a couple years. This is why some people section their compost pile into two parts: one started more recently and one started longer ago. Maintaining each section separately allows for a smaller amount of compost to be ready for use on a more regular basis.

Of course, if all of this sounds like more work than you want to take on, we understand how you feel! That's why we stock plenty of nutrient-rich compost every planting season, available in bags or in bulk and produced by local companies who specialize in this process. So whether you're keen to try your hand at producing backyard compost or simply need advice selecting the right product for your garden, we're here to help. Call or stop by today and we'll be happy to take care of you!


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