How to Make Compost for the Garden in 5 Easy Steps

Back in the day when most people lived on farms, keeping a compost pile for the garden was commonplace. But in current times, not everybody has a cow or chicken in their backyard or acres of land to create piles of decomposing material.

But truly composting is one of the best things you can do for the garden. There is nothing more natural than putting back into the soil what came out of it.

Compost in its simplest terms is decomposed organic materials. It is an excellent way to recycle kitchen and yard waste, turning it into something even better than you can buy from a garden center.

Building your own compost pile is also an excellent way to save money. Think of all the bags of peat moss, fertilizer and other amendments you add to your soil. A few inches of compost can replace most of these.

The Basics of Composting

Creating a compost pile is very easy. You will need five elements to get started. Organic matter (both brown & green), oxygen, water, and bacteria.

1. First, you need the “brown” materials”. Dried leaves are one of the best brown materials to start with since most folks have these in abundance. You can also use shredded newspaper, twigs, pine needles or any other dry material from around the garden. Manure is also included in the “brown” part of the equation.

The Brown Part of Compost is made up of Leaves, Dried Grass, Straw, Newspaper or Cardboard.
The “brown” component of compost is typically leaves, dried grass, straw or even cardboard.

2. Next, you need the “green” materials. This includes fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable leftovers from the kitchen.

The "Green" part of compost is made up from vegetable scraps,
The “green” part of the compost equation can be most any fruit or veggie food scraps or garden waste.

3. Bacteria are the real workers in turning yard waste into compost. You don’t need to add anything here, bacteria exists in all living things, so it is already present in your organic waste. However, if you want to speed up the process, you can add a little soil or finished compost to the mix. Both are rich in the type of bacteria needed.

4. Oxygen is important to help the bacteria break down the plant material. You supply oxygen to your pile by “turning” it. Frequent turning of your compost will also help to reduce the odor and prevent any critters from making a home near the edges. Freestanding compost piles are a favorite nesting place for rodents & other critters, so keep a look-out!

5. Finally, you need moisture. You want your compost pile to be damp, but not wet. If you lift a section of compost out with you shovel, it should somewhat clump together. If it is dripping, it is too wet – to fix this simply add a little more dry material. If the compost doesn’t hold together, it is too dry.  So give it a spray from the hose, turning it to distribute the moisture.

Adding vegetable scraps to the compost pile with title overlay - Composting Made Easy

How to Make Compost Piles

Making a compost pile is pretty easy.  It’s all about layering the brown and green materials.

  1. Select a sunny location for your compost. The heat from the sun will help to accelerate the decomposition process. The location should be convenient to your gardens, but not too close to the house.
  2. Begin your compile pile with a healthy layer of brown material, a few inches is perfect.
  3. Next, add some green material. Experts recommend an equal mix of brown and green materials. This keeps the ratio of carbon and nitrogen at the right level for decomposition.
  4. Continue layering the brown and green materials. Water the pile as needed to keep it moist.
  5. After about two weeks you should “turn” the pile. This is a good amount of time to let the center of the pile heat up. Continue to turn your pile every 2-4 weeks.

How long Does it Take to Make Compost?

The length of time to produce compost will vary based on a number of factors. But for a pile of about 3×5 feet, you can expect finished compost in about 3 months. Here are a few tips to speed up the process.

  • Turn the pile every 2 weeks.
  • Keep it evenly moist.
  • Keep the ratio of brown to green materials even.
  • Add finished compost and worms to your pile. They will help to break down the material faster.
  • Use a tumbler, the enclosed area keeps your compost moist & hot, plus it is easier to turn to ensure your pile gets enough oxygen.

Compost Bins and Tumblers

Compost bins and tumblers are used to maintain appearances and keep the compost all in one place. A large compost pile may be perfectly fine if you live on a farm, but most residential homeowners don’t want a big heap of decomposing matter in their backyards.

Compost Bins: Contain the Compost

Compost bins in the garden
Compost bins in the garden

Compost bins are simply large containers used to keep the compost contained.  Most containers are about three feet high, three wide and three feet deep. When buying a compost bin, bigger is not always better. Turning a huge compost pile takes a lot of work, so look for a size that you can easily maintain.

The best compost bins will include a lid with holes in order to allow rainwater to get in to maintain moisture. Two good examples are shown to the right. Fresh material can be added in the top of the bin, while mature compost is shoveled out from the trap door at the bottom.

Like the stand-alone piles, you will have to occasionally turn the compost material over. This can take a bit of elbow grease depending on how deep your pile is, so many people opt to use a compost tumbler.

Compost Tumblers: Mix it Up

Compost tumblers may cost a little more, but they make turning the pile very easy. A typical tumbler is a plastic drum-shaped container mounted on A-frames that are about waist high.

Add your organic material through a door opening on the side of the drum and give it a half-turn every week. This moves the top of your pile to the bottom which improves aeration. When you use a compost tumbler, you could have usable compost in about a month.

Using Manures as Compost

Adding manure to your composting program is a great way to mix up the blend of organic matter and nutrients in your compost.  Horse, cow and chicken manure are all good choices.

Where to Find Manure for Composting

You can often find bags of dried manure at your local garden centers. But this can get expensive and is just not the same as the “local stuff”. Almost everyone can find a source of free manures from a local farm or stables.  Here are a few sources to check.

  • Freecycle is a nonprofit organization that brings people who are giving free stuff away to anyone looking for a bargain in their hometown.
  • Craiglist is always a great resource.  Just go to your town’s farm and garden section, then type in manure.  You are likely to find multiple livestock owners wishing to share.
  • Contact your local University’s Extension office.  Many have Manure Sharing programs like the University of Illinois that connect livestock owners that have excess manure with gardeners who are in need of organic materials.

How to use Manure in the Garden

Adding manure to the garden and compost pile is a long-standing tradition of all farmers to fertilize their crops.

Cow manure is an excellent source of organic material for the compost pile
Most livestock owners are happy to share a little manure for your gardens.

If you have a small pick-up truck to load the manure, that is great. But you can also use heavy-duty plastic contractor bags. Just make sure the bags are thick. The last thing you want is one of the bags to tear in your car.

Fill the bags or your truck with well-aged manure. Six to eight months is recommended to ensure there is a lower amount of nitrogen and pathogens which can potential ‘burn” your plants.

Many farmers will not charge you for the manures.  They are more than happy to have people reduce the size of their ever-expanding manure piles! However, some may charge a nominal fee.  It is typically only a few dollars, and hey farmers need to make a living too!

Can you Apply Manure Directly to the Garden Bed?

If you don’t want to put the manure directly in your compost pile, you can instead apply it to the garden separately. Keep this saying in mind: “Fresh in the fall, compost come spring.” According to Colorado State University,  fresh manure should be applied at least four months prior to harvest.

You can use fresh manure in the fall because it will have all winter to break down. In the fall, shovel about four inches of manure on top of your flower and vegetable gardens. Top this with your composted material and let it sit through the winter. Come spring, all you have to do is lightly turn this into your soil and you will be planting your flowers and seedlings into a REALLY healthy place.

Did you know not all manure has the same nutrient content? For example, rabbit manure has a much higher nitrogen concentration, so is better for nitrogen loving plants like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. But don’t get too hung up on this, if you mix in plenty of other material and apply manure in the fall, chances are you will be just fine. Just remember to wear gloves when handling manure!

Nutrient Analysis of Different Manures

Pig0.5–0.3– .5

Source: RodalesOrganicLife

Summary of Garden Composting

Get into composting and you will make both your garden and the environment very happy. Locally grown, sustainable and organic…it’s the way to go!

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How to Make Compost in 5 easy steps