Compost – Black Gold
Have you always wanted to learn how to compost, but don’t know where to start? You’re in the right place! This last post in the “Feeding Your Garden” blog series, I’ll share how easy it is to make a hot compost pile that will break down quickly to give you powerful, organic nutrients to feed your garden what it needs to be healthy and productive.
What is compost?
Compost is simply decomposed organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps. I like to add compost at the start of each planting season. Not only does it reduce my volume of trash significantly, it adds nutrient rich, organic matter to the soil, and promotes the growth of microbes and beneficial bacteria that help with plant growth. We gardeners like to call it “black gold”.
Chose your method
If you ask 10 different gardeners how to compost, you get 11 different method and techniques. You can build a hot or a cold pile, a free standing pile, make a DIY compost bin (click here for a video) or purchase a ready made bin. I’ve done all three. All make compost, it’s simply a matter of preference.
A cold compost pile can be any size, will break down slowly over several months or even years. Materials can be added on a continual basis, or all at once. Water and turn as often or as seldom as you wish. The advantage to a cold pile is that it takes little effort to build and attracts worms. The disadvantage is it takes a long time for the compost to break down, and the finished compost usually contains seeds that may volunteer in random places after compost is added to your garden beds.
A hot compost pile is usually quite large pile (at least 3 ft x 3ft ) has the potential to break down in a matter of weeks. Materials are added all at once, and it must be watered and turned on a regular basis. The advantage is that is does break down quickly so you have finished compost sooner. The heat also kills the viable seeds, meaning fewer volunteers popping up in your garden. The disadvantage is that is does take a bit more work to maintain.
How to build a hot compost pile
A quick, simple and inexpensive place for a beginning composter to start is with a ready made bin – I like the Smart Pots Compost Sak. The Compost Sak is a durable fabric sack that is easy to pop up on the side of your house or on your patio, throw in your compost ingredients and let them cook away!
Although the Compost Sak has a 100 gallon capacity, (a perfect size for a hot pile) it can also be used to make a small, cold, compost pile. The sides can be can folded up or down, depending on the amount of materials you have collected. And since the fabric is aerated, it means that your compost will break down quicker and you won’t have to turn it as often.
Collect your ingredients
Collecting ingredients for your compost pile is easier than you think. Use any materials were once a plant. Some ingredients that I like to use are kitchen scraps (no meat or dairy), used coffee grounds, egg shells, garden waste (no diseased plants), pine needles, sawdust, shredded cardboard, shredded newsprint (no glossy paper), dried leaves, grass clippings that have not been treated with chemicals.
I like to collect kitchen scraps in my freezer until I have enough ingredients to make a large pile all at once. If you don’t have available freezer space, designate a space in your garden that is your “pile in progress” where you collect your materials. Mix your food scraps with dried leaves or grass clippings to keep it from smelling and looking unsightly. You will take ingredients from this pile to build your hot compost pile
Adding a variety of brown and green ingredients gives you a better chance of a successful compost pile. “Brown” and “green” does not refer to the color of the materials, but rather what they are made up of.
“Browns” are materials that are rich in carbon. Typically this includes anything that comes from a tree, such as dried leaves, pine needles, newspapers or cardboard.
“Greens” refer to nitrogen rich materials. Typically this includes kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, garden waste, or grass clippings.
Ideally,a hot compost pile will have 3 parts brown materials and 1 part green materials. However, don’t get too caught up in the exact proportions of browns and greens, just throw them all in and let them rot! Even if your pile does not get hot, eventually compost will happen.
Layer your ingredients
To get your compost heating up, you need size! This is where the Compost Sak comes in. Fold down the sides, and add your ingredients, a thin layer at a time.
TIP: the smaller your ingredients are, the quicker they will break down. An optional step is to shred leaves by running over them with a lawn mower before they are added to the pile, and break up other materials with a pointed shovel as you add them.
Water between each layer, and mix the water into your materials with a pitch fork until each layer is the moisture of a wrung out sponge. Fold up the sides of the Compost Sak to accommodate the size of your pile. The bigger your pile gets, the better chance you will have of it heating up and breaking down quickly. When your sack is full, cover it with a tarp and let it sit for at least three days. This is when the magic happens!
Hot or not?
Once your pile has sat for at least 3 days, check the temperature with a compost thermometer. If the mix of ingredients is right, your pile will heat up to 90-140 degrees. If you don’t have compost thermometer, stick a piece of rebar or a metal garden stake in the pile. Pull it out after a few minutes, if it the end is hot, you have yourself a hot compost pile! If your pile is not heating up, add more green materials, used coffee grounds, or grass clippings really get things going!
TIP: A good resource for large amounts of used coffee grounds is you local coffee shop. They are usually happy to give away used coffee grounds just for the asking!
Air, water & turning
The two things compost needs to break down are air and water. Every 3-4 days, turn your pile. Dig in with your pitchfork, twisting and turning the materials together, bringing the materials on the bottom to the top. If your pile has dry spots, add water mixing it in as as you turn. Continue twisting and turning with your pitchfork, piling materials to one side, until you reach the bottom of the Compost Sak.
Don’t worry about bringing all of the materials from the bottom of the Compost Sak to the top, but do poke your pitchfork as far down to the bottom as you can , twisting and turning as you go. This will provide the aeration and moisture your pile needs to break down.
Repeat the turning and watering process every 3-4 days. If your pile gets hot and heats up again during turnings, It will break down in about a month. If your pile is not heating up between turnings, add used coffee grounds, this green material is a great nitrogen source and heats things up quickly!
Using compost in your garden
Compost is finished when there are no easily recognizable materials in it and it looks nice and black and smells like soil, nice and earthy! Now you are ready to add your black gold to your garden!
Using compost in your garden is very easy, just add a handful and scratch in around the base of your existing plants, or add to your planting hole when you transplant your veggies. You can also add a few inches of compost to your garden bed each planting season. Your compost will feed your garden and help our your plants be healthy and productive all season long!
Watch the video below “How to Make a Hot Compost Pile, Quick, Simple & Inexpensive” to see how easy it is to make compost in a Compost Sak.
If you really want to get things growing in your garden, feed it all 4 of the organic nutrients we have learned about in the this series. Worm castings, worm tea, trifecta+, and compost are a powerful combination that can be added to your garden at planting time and throughout the growing season. These nutrients will help you get the results you want: lots of homegrown, organic, tasty fruits and veggies for those you love!
Comment below, what have you learned about compost that will help you make black gold for your garden?
Thanks to Smart Pots for partnering with me for blog post. Some of the links in this post are affiliate links – I make a small commission when you order through these links and its helps me keep the garden content coming!