Never underestimate the importance of organic compost in the garden. High-quality homemade compost can add nutrients, drainage, and biology to your soil. This is especially important when gardening organically because we aren’t using commercially manufactured additives to boost soil fertility. Instead, we are using organic compost to feed the soil which in turn feeds the plants.
Organic compost is magic in the veggie garden. By using homemade organic compost in the veggie garden you can create custom blends that suit your soil’s needs. For example, by adding plant material that is high in selenium, calcium or iron such as horsetail, dandelion greens or nettle, you can increase those trace minerals your soil and thus increasing the nutrient density of your food.
While compost isn’t technically classified as a “fertilizer” (it’s a “soil additive”), adding it to the soil regularly can result in higher yields, better moisture retention in sandy soils and better drainage in clay or heavy soils. It’s easy to see why compost is often referred to as Black Gold.
What is Compost?
Ok, so what is compost anyway? Compost is basically decomposing and broken down “organic” matter, leaves, kitchen waste, and manure. (I should note that for this purpose when I say organic matter, I mean naturally found plant matter not “certified organic”, I speak more about organic certification in a bit.) Quality compost is teeming with life, it is home to both large wriggling earthworms and microscopic bacterial and microbes. If you would like to learn more about the life within the soil, I’ve added a link below to a series of fantastic books by Jeff Lowenfels.
Real, beautiful, organic compost is rich, odorless black gold that takes time and quality ingredients to create, but the results are totally worth the effort.
Truth Bomb! Compost is not a stinky, pile of gross food scraps in an unused corner of your yard.
Sorry friends! 🙁
There is a reason why gardeners rarely offer their compost up for sharing, once you get the hang of composting you won’t want another shred of beautiful, organic matter leave your site; especially knowing that it could be turned back into valuable black gold.
Starting a compost pile
While it might seem intimidating, starting a compost pile is easy and well worth the effort. Here are a few of my favorite tips for starting a compost pile.
Best location for starting a compost pile:
Finding the right location for your compost pile is super important, I recommend finding a sheltered location with a mix of sun and shade that is near water and close to the garden. I keep my compost pile near my chicken coop and close to the garden. This way I have access to rain barrels, tools, and manure, all things that help make great compost. Once you’ve found the best location possible for your compost pile, you’ll need to start sourcing your ingredients.
Organic compost side note:
Back to organic/certified organic. If you are sourcing material for a large compost pile, it is important to think about where those materials are coming. Free and cheap materials are not necessarily the best materials to chose. Many pesticides/herbicides and fungicides can remain on plant material and in animal manure for up to 5 years and may not break-down during the composting process, resulting in toxic residue in your compost. Opt instead, for materials that come from trustworthy sources, chose animal manure from certified organic farms and lawn clipping from yards that are naturally tended or no-spray.
The science behind starting a compost pile:
When building a compost pile you need to think about your carbon to nitrogen ratio, which sounds super science-y but it’s really simple. You need to keep to 60% dry woody material such as small branches, sticks or wood chips and 40% green materials like garden waste, grass clippings, green leaves, and kitchen waste. If you are thinking of adding manure, keep it to less than 10% of the overall volume of the pile. Adding too much manure can result in a stinky and sometimes dangerously hot pile. Stick to mostly woody material, kitchen scraps, garden waste and grass clippings and you should be fine.
Let me work that out in a recipe for you:
- 6 parts dry woody material such as wood chips, wood shavings, finely chopped or shredded branches, bark or cardboard products and aim for a mix of materials and sizes.
- 4 parts moist green material, this is kitchen scraps, green grass clippings, raked leaves and garden waste. Again try to mix it up between sizes and materials.
- If you’re serious about composting, add 1 part manure or coffee grounds, this will act as jet fuel to the pile and get it breaking down very quickly.
If you mix a bag of sawdust and a bunch of green grass clippings, your pile will turn into a slimy, smelly mess in no time. -yuck!- Again, try for a mix materials, diversity is always great!
Moisten your pile as you work, aiming for a damp – but not soggy pile – of well-mixed materials. This process is hard work but the result is totally worth it.
If you live in a wet region cover your pile with a breathable material (such as heavy landscape fabric) after you turn the compost pile, this will keep it from getting too soggy.
If you live in a dry area like I do, water your pile a little as you turn it. And keep it moistened through the dry season.
Remember we want a rich relatively odorless pile – a stinky pile is an unhealthy pile.
How long does it take to make compost
By now you might be wondering: How long does it take to make compost? While the answer can vary greatly according to your region, moisture, and ingredients, let’s assume a healthy compost pile can be harvested every 6-12 months. So, I like to make a big fresh pile every spring and every fall, so that I have a large amount of compost right when I need it.
My organic compost process
I’ve opted for a 3 bin compost system, which I love! It is easy to use, works great and was cheap to build. If y’all are interested I can write further about the 3 bin system, including how to build one, just let me know.
I’m in Canada so I have about 3 months of winter in which my pile is dormant, so I tend to harvest my compost every 6-8 months. I have been working my site for about 8 years and I feel like I am into a composting rhythm now, lol is that a thing?
My process has sped up dramatically since getting our hens. It seems that the small amount of chicken manure that they produce, mixed with the coop bedding is working wonders for my compost pile. I am producing beautiful, well broken-down compost in half the time that I was without the manure.
In the 3 bin system, I have a working bin (bin 1), an aging bin (bin 2), and a ready bin (bin 3).
- Bin 1: I only add materials to bin 1, this is my kitchen scrap, coop bedding, everything bin.
- Bin 2: Is resting/aging. I don’t add anything to it – ever! I turn it once to ensure that everything is broken down, but nothing new goes into it. I sometimes take a bit of compost from bin 2 to top bin 1 if bin 1 is smelly from fresh chicken manure or beer grain (my husband is a craft homebrewer).
- Bin 3: Is finished compost that just needs to be sifted before being put on the garden.
Turning my compost pile
This is a very simple but physical process and I only do it twice a year, usually as I harvest compost for the spring and fall garden prep.
- Step 1: The compost from bin 3 is screened and harvested, then added to my veggie beds and perennial gardens. Leaving bin 3 empty.
- Step 2: All the large debris that is left from screening goes back into bin 1.
- Step 3: The material from bin 2 is turned/mixed up and moved into bin 3. Leaving bin 2 empty.
- Step 4: The material from bin 1 is mixed up and moved to bin 2. Leaving bin 1 empty.
- Like I said I do this 2 times a year, and I seem to have plenty of compost for all my garden needs 🙂
There are other methods as well, vermi-compost or worm compost is great for small spaces. Bokashi or aerobic fermentation works well if you have critters like bears or rodents to contend with. And trench composting, which is a simple no fuss way to compost right in your veggie garden, but expect volunteer veggie seedlings with this method.
While each of these alternatives are great, I still love the simplicity of a 3 bin compost system.
How to use compost
Once your compost has finished it can be used all over the garden. While organic compost is safe to use on the garden in large amounts, it is often used sparingly, simply because of the amount of time and work that goes into making it.
How to use compost on perennials:
Apply organic compost to perennials in the spring to give them a boost for the growing season. Simply top dress with 1-3 inches of compost around each perennial or tree, making sure to not smother the trunk/base of the plant. Water the compost into the soil with a few inches of water, alternatively this could be done just before your spring rains hit.
How to use compost on vegetables:
Work organic compost into your veggie beds to add biology and increase soil drainage. Veggies need a well-rounded soil amendment to thrive, compost is the perfect solution. Work 2-3 inches of compost into the top layer of your veggie bed before planting. I like to add a scoop of compost to each hole as I plant my tomatoes, these heavy feeders really love the added nutrient. You can also sprinkle compost around your veggies mid-season to give the plants a boost.
How to use compost tea:
Or, consider making organic compost tea for application on lawns, fruit trees and perennial beds for a quick boost of nutrients. There are thousands of YouTube videos on compost tea, some have great information, some have terrible info. If you would like to learn more let me know and I can write a post for you 🙂
Anyway, if you don’t have a compost tea brewer, simply soak a stocking full of compost in water for an hour or two and apply that to your plants. Please, do NOT let it sit in there for days to get stinky and gross, it’s really not good for your soil or yourself.
Remember friends…. organic compost shouldn’t stink! xoxo
That’s it for now, please let me know if you have any questions by commenting below and feel free to share with your gardening friends 🙂
Thanks for hanging out,