It’s hard to envision while you stand there pondering the rotting mass of a compost pile that the wheel of life is turning inside there. Yesterday’s weeds, clippings, vegetable peelings, and the lot are transforming through death into the fuel for future life. There’s magic happening in there you’ll never find in any bag or jug of plant food. Compost is bigger than a fertilizer, and more than a healing agent for your soil. It is what makes continuing life possible, and sustainable.

You might think compost is trendy, a new age approach to gardening, but it’s as old as the Earth. Nature was making compost long before any humans were here. Fallen leaves on the forest and jungle floor, grasses of the prairies, and wildflowers of the meadows all fell to molder on the ground to return what they had taken from the soil back to it. Wildlife and birds passed over, left droppings, and eventually themselves to enrich the soil again. It’s full circle, this process of Nature, and where the concept of composting came from.

But today’s compost pile is concentrated, intensified, we’ve sped up the progress around this circle. It doesn’t take an entire year to generate supersoil – rich, dark humus from organic waste. And since gardeners accumulate piles and piles of weeds, clippings, branches, leaves, it makes perfect sense to put it back to use, to recycle it as it was originally intended. Your reward takes a bit more effort than dragging yard waste to the curb, but in the end you have the key to soil vitality.

You Feed It – It Feeds You

Such a concept! A renewable resource. All rotting vegetable material, and waste produced from consuming them isn’t garbage, but the ingredients of fresh soil.

The process changes smelly animal manure, and rotting produce into something actually pleasant to handle. The temperatures inside a compost pile is what renders disgusting stuff into something that doesn’t gross you out. It returns the nitrogen content dried and wood waste materials have tied up in their cells (corncobs, sticks, bark, hay and straw, sawdust, etc) further enriching the nitrogen content of finished compost.

Microorganisms breakdown the carbon content of everything you’ve added to the pile, decreasing the bulk mass, but it’s not totally decayed. The remaining organic matter is valuable to your soil, where it continues to break down while providing sustenance for your growing soil food web that your plants depend on for robust health and growth. It’s the creme de la creme of soil amendments and conditioners, and far more powerful than fertilizer. So, stop giving it to the waste collection people, and start generating your own compost. It’s really not that hard.

Make Your Own Compost

You layer natural ingredients in a pile, a bin, or a tumbler. You have to give it the air and moisture necessary, and turn it to get the bacterial action worked through all of your pile. Dont use anything that’s been treated with fungicides or insecticides, they kill microorganisms too. Shredded paper is better than big pieces, because it breaks down faster, and you don’t want any colored ink or glossy print in the pile. No feces from cats and dogs either, but your rabbit pen, chicken coop, or goat shed clean-out is an excellent addition as long as you make sure it is THOROUGHLY composted before applying it to your garden.

Put it in the sun! The heat will help process it faster. You want a 6″ layer of plant waste, followed by a 2″ layer of animal manure and straw bedding. Next put a thin layer of topsoil (1.8″), and if its urine saturated soil that’s even better – like from inside your goat pen, or even a bag of topsoil infused by a family collection pot. You don’t want any manure or urine from animals or people taking hormones or other pharmaceuticals. Top it off by sprinkling some garden lime, bone meal, phosphate, and granite dust or hardwood ashes. Water it down well, and don’t let anyone walk through the pile and compact it.

Add another set of the same as soon as possible, if you can. In a few days your pile will start shrinking while the temperature inside is heating up. Don’t turn it until 2-3 weeks after building it. Wait 2 weeks and turn it again. Move the outside to the middle and vice-versa while turning to distribute the heat and bacterial action well. Don’t turn it more often in hopes it will finish sooner, you’ll be messing up that lovely process happening in there. If it starts drying out, add a little moisture, but don’t drown it.

Your compost will be done and ready to apply in about 12 weeks, but… If it’s finished in the autumn, and you won’t be using it until next spring, it needs storing under cover to protect it from the sun and water. On the other hand, if you have to keep it over the summer for quite a while, you should water it periodically until you can work it into the ground soil, because you can’t just apply it any old time.

Applying Compost

The condition, age, and degree of decomposition affects when you apply compost, how much to apply, and how you apply it.

  • If it still contains some fibrous material, your compost is half done, and should never be applied near growing plants. Best to leave it in the pile longer… Unless its fall when its safe to work it into your soil to complete decomposing over the cold season.
  • If it’s fully matured, at which stage your compost has turned into light, rich loam – it’s ready to apply at the right time.
  • The best time to apply it is a month before planting to allow it to condition the soil nicely.
  • But sometimes, like when you grow early and later season crops on the same patch of ground per season, you’ll want to do more than one application a year.

The key here is the closer to planting time you apply it, the finer it should be, and the more thoroughly you need to work it into your soil. But before you begin spreading it about, turn your ground soil well. Now stir your compost into the top four inches of loose soil. A precaution in your veggie garden – sift it first! Any chunks that don’t pass through the mesh of a half inch sieve should go back to the compost pile for further decomposition.

To add compost to your perennials, edible or ornamental, and other established plants, it’s best to mix it in topsoil and applied like a top dressing. It will work it’s way down through the soil over time, as well as emit beneficial nutrients and microorganisms for your plants. This application method also suppresses weeds and protects your plants from extreme temperatures and rainfall.

Finally – how compost should you apply? Don’t be stingy, it’s supersoil, and you can’t really over feed your garden like you can with regular fertilizer. The average rule of thumb is 1-3 inches per year, and you can apply it up to two times a year.

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton