Nutrient-rich soil is the foundation for a healthy garden. You can rely on fertilizers to feed your plants, but fertilizer costs can quickly add up. Excessive fertilizer use can also create salts in your garden soil that aren’t good for your plants. An effective way to improve your garden’s soil is to add compost to it.
Compost will add much needed nutrients to your soil from table scraps and organic waste from around the home that you would have tossed into the trash. Compost is also an effective way to add organic matter to your soil. Organic matter helps the soil to hold water without becoming overly soggy. Organic particles will enhance any type of soil, whether it’s sandy coastal soil or clay-rich soil. Making your own compost is easy once you know where to start.
What can I compost?
Knowing what you can and can’t compost is the hardest part about composting. (Spoiler alert- it’s not hard to remember which things are compost-worthy!) There are two types of materials that you’ll add to a compost pile: green material and brown material. No, this doesn’t always refer to the color of the things going into the pile, but you’ll notice that a lot of ‘green’ materials are actually green in color.
Green compost materials include food scraps that you would normally throw into the garbage. Here are some green compost materials that are safe to put into your compost pile:
- Grass clippings
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Plant trimmings
- Livestock manure
Grass clippings are an essential for a good compost pile. When you’re adding grass clippings, make sure that your clippings don’t contain seed heads. Cut your lawn before it has a chance to seed out to avoid adding seeds to your compost pile. A compost pile that is added to and turned frequently will become ‘hot’. A hot compost pile can break down seeds but it’s best to avoid adding any seeds to the pile in case it isn’t hot. Seeds that aren’t broken down in the pile will sprout in the garden when you add your compost. You don’t need to add more weeds to your garden than you’ll already have to fight.
Coffee grounds and tea bags are excellent additives to a compost pile. Most tea bags will break down over time in the compost. If your tea bag has a small metal staple in it, you may want to remove it since it can take longer to disintegrate. Fruit and vegetable scraps should definitely be added to your compost pile. Potato and carrot peels, leftover lettuce, uneaten bits of fruits, watermelon rinds and other scraps will add nutrients to your compost.
Again, unless your compost is hot, avoid adding any seeds to it. Egg shells can be added to your compost pile as long as they are free of the yolk and white. Once you crack your eggs, give the shells a quick rinse under the sink to remove any leftover egg. The shells will add a boost of calcium to your compost, which is perfect for helping to ward off calcium deficiencies like blossom end rot.
When you’re trimming or deadheading plants in your flowerbeds, you can add the trimmings to the compost pile. Avoid adding blackberry or raspberry vines to your compost pile. Also, avoid adding large sticks or branches. These won’t break down by the time your compost is ready for the garden.
Living on a farm with livestock means that you always have manure on hand. Manure is an excellent garden additive at any time, but it can also be added to your compost pile. Manure that is safe for the compost pile comes from horses, cows, chickens, rabbits, goats, llamas or alpacas. Never add dog, cat, pig or human feces to your compost or garden. These manure types contain bacteria that can make you sick.
A healthy compost pile also needs brown material. Brown compost material is dry or woody. Some common brown compost materials include:
- Newspaper (no glossy ink)
- Cardboard (no glossy ink or glue)
- Fall leaves
- Pine needles
- Straw or hay
- Chipped wood
Magazine papers can also be added as long as they don’t have glossy pages. The ink used that creates a glossy finish will prevent the pages or cardboard from disintegrating, so only use paper or cardboard that has dull, matte ink.
How much green and brown do I need?
You’ll see many suggestions online for creating the proper ratio of green to brown materials in your compost. If you can, you want to have three parts brown to one part green. This will help your compost pile to heat up and become hot. Remember, only a hot compost pile will break down unwanted seeds. Don’t overly stress about the ratio of green materials to brown materials though.
If you notice that the materials aren’t breaking down or that your compost pile smells bad, then you need to add more brown materials to it. A smelly compost pile will rot rather than decompose and will smell bad. A healthy compost pile smells more like dirt than rotting food.
You may also notice that your compost pile becomes dry. If that happens, you can turn the pile and mist it with water. Don’t soak the compost pile; a little bit of water goes a long way. A compost pile will break down faster if you turn it every so often. Use a shovel to churn up your compost once or twice a week to help it break down faster. This isn’t a necessary step. If you never turn your compost it will break down, it will just take longer to do so.
Things to Avoid
A lot of the materials that you would throw away around your home can be composted, but not all things are safe to put into your compost bin. Some materials won’t break down, some will prevent your other compost from breaking down properly and other materials can add bacteria and disease-causing pathogens to your compost that can make your plants, or you, sick. Here’s what to avoid putting in your compost pile:
Ashes from coal. You can put most wood ashes into your compost pile without worrying, but ashes from coal contain large amounts of sulfur and iron. Too much sulfur and iron can damage your plants when you put the compost around them.
Plants that were diseased shouldn’t be composted. It’s true that a hot compost pile can kill microorganisms, but it’s not a guarantee that it will kill all pathogens. You could be adding disease to your compost, and later, your plants in the garden, if you add diseased plants to the compost. Any plant that was showing signs of disease should be disposed of outside of the compost.
Even plants that aren’t the same plants you’ll be adding the compost to can carry disease that could make your garden plants sick. That rose bush that died from powdery mildew? Don’t add it to the compost pile since you could accidentally give your vegetable plants powdery mildew when you put the compost on them.
The only materials that should be added to your compost pile are materials that are organic. Inorganic materials won’t break down and could even release harmful chemicals and toxins into your compost. Plastics, glass and metals won’t break down in compost. Instead, add these to a recycling bin to dispose of them.
Plants and green food scraps will break down without causing a huge stink. Meat, bones and dairy will rot and spoil before they start breaking down. This can create strong odors that will also attract scavengers to your compost pile. Normal, at-home compost piles won’t break these materials down properly, so avoid putting these scraps in the compost.
Manure can be added to the compost pile, but be sure to avoid manure from dogs, cats, humans or pigs. These animals can carry disease-causing organisms that can make people sick, so avoid using them.
When you add grass clippings or other plant materials, try to avoid adding ones that were treated with chemicals. Pesticides and herbicides can survive the composting process. If your compost has chemicals in it, you could damage your garden plants when you add your chemical-containing compost to it.
Don’t be intimidated by composting. It’s a simple and straightforward process that will allow you to turn waste into garden gold. You’ll grow healthier and more productive plants, without having to spend extra money on fertilizers.
How will you start composting?
Today’s post about composting comes from Shelby DeVore, founder of Farminence [https://farminence.com]. Shelby is a former agriculture teacher and a multi-generational home gardener. She currently lives on a small farm with her husband and three children where they raise way too many animals and grow a large vegetable garden each year.