Gardeners love compost. It's common knowledge that compost improves water drainage, fertility, and structure of garden soil. Recent research shows that compost also can inhibit plant diseases, neutralize toxic chemicals in the soil, and reduce erosion. Quite a list of accomplishments for this 'black gold' that anyone can produce in their backyard.
You can make compost yourself or purchase it from a growing list of commercial sources. Due to the problem of shrinking space in landfills, many communities forbid dumping yard waste such as grass clippings, leaves, and branches, or charge a premium for taking them. This has spurred many municipalities to create their own community composting facilities, where they create finished compost for city landscaping projects or sell it to landscapers and gardeners. Private companies also are commercially producing compost for sale.
However, you don't have to break the bank buying compost for your yard. It's easy and inexpensive to make yourself. Leaves, grass clippings, and even vegetable wastes from the kitchen are the some of the common materials you can use to make compost. It's just like making lasagna. Just add a layer of this, and a layer of that, then let the whole thing cook until done.
To get started making your own compost, you need the right equipment. This simplest method is to build an open-sided container that will form a bin about 3 to 5 feet across and not more than 5 feet high. The sides need to be open because making compost requires air circulation. The top should be temporarily covered with a tarp to prevent rain from making the pile too soggy.
Some materials you can use to make your own bin include:
Making compost is like cooking. You'll need a recipe. To make compost you'll need air plus moisture plus layers of waste materials. Beside leaves, grass clippings, and weeds pulled from the garden, other materials to use in composting include coffee grounds, eggshells, hair, feathers, wood ashes, and ground seashells. Items that should be kept out of compost include meat and bones, large amounts of sawdust, pet manure and, of course, anything metallic or plastic.
If you just dumped these materials in a bin they will eventually decompose overtime. However, working to produce a 'hot' compost pile is much better. A hot compost pile heats up to more than 140°F degrees, killing any weed seeds or harmful diseases. In this compost pile, layers of straw alternate with layers of nitrogen-rich manure.
The classic recipe for compost calls for alternating 6-inch thick layers of 'green' materials high in nitrogen (manure, weeds, fresh grass clippings) and 'brown' materials high in carbon (leaves, straw, sawdust). To accelerate the decomposing process, mix in a 2-inch layer of manure or soil between each layer. Sprinkle each layer with water and repeat this compost lasagna until the pile is 3 to 5 feet high.
Serious composters often have several bins in a row where they collect and stockpile materials in preparation for the day they build a layered compost pile. The smaller the organic material pieces, the faster they will be broken down in the pile. An easy way to prepare thick, woody materials for composting is to grind them in a chipper.
In about two weeks, bacteria in the pile will have reduced much of the material in the center of the pile to compost and caused it to heat up. The pile now needs to be turned to be aerated and complete the process for materials on the outside of the pile. Depending on your setup, you can turn the material into an adjacent bin or turn it within the bin itself. Commercial tumbling composters available through garden centers or catalogs, make this process easier by putting a drum or container on some kind of turning device.
The turned pile should be watered so it's moist, but not soggy. Ideally it will heat up again finishing the composting process in another week or two. Any remaining large stalks, branches, or vegetables can be recomposted.
When the compost is done, it can be turned into garden or sifted through a screen of hardware cloth and used in containers. Your finished compost also makes a great tea. Making compost tea is an easy way to receive many of the benefits of compost without having to haul the heavy materials to the garden. You can make the tea by soaking a sack of finished compost in a barrel of water for 2 to 3 hours. To really juice up the tea, consider aerating the compost. By adding oxygen more microbes will be produced that will make for better quality tea and better plant growth. Dilute the tea with water and apply as needed.