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What is Compost?

composting-pixCompost is a part of the natural process of decomposition. Leaves drop from trees.  Grass clippings are left on the lawn after mowing.  Living plants die and over time, all of these organic materials break down or decompose.  The rich, dark-brown, crumbly soil-like material that results is called compost.

Most people are aware of the benefits of making and using compost in a garden but sometimes are not sure how to get started.  Perhaps they have heard conflicting opinions about the “right” way and the “wrong” way to compost.  While some gardeners are active proponents of the “hot and fast” way of composting, others maintain that “slow and cool is the way to go.”  The fact is there are many different ways to compost.  As long as a few simple guidelines are followed, you can make good, beneficial compost.

Size and location

Start with a 4-foot by 8-foot area, preferably shaded, where water does not collect when it rains.  Begin the compost by simply piling up yard waste materials.  An enclosure, such as a wire bin or a bin made from wood or leftover pallets may be used as a container.  For most efficient breakdown, aim for a pile that is 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep.

Starting materials

Cover half the area with a 6-inch high layer of leaves, twigs, or small tree trimmings and water thoroughly.  Whether you choose a bin or a pile, start with some twigs or leaves, about six inches deep.  These materials supply carbon.  Next, add a couple of inches of grass clippings or fruit/vegetable scraps.  These materials add nitrogen. A sprinkling of garden soil may be added at this point but isn’t necessary.

What Not to Put In?

As a general rule, if it will clog your arteries, leave it OUT of the backyard compost pile.  Things like meats, fats, bones and greasy items take a very long time to decompose and in the meantime may smell and attract all manner of uninvited “guests.”  Pet wastes may carry disease and should also stay out of the pile.  Avoid weeds pulled from your garden.   Unless the pile gets very, very hot the weeds will sprout, either in your compost pile or later on in the garden.

Mixing It Up

Mix the carbon and nitrogen materials together with a hay fork, rake, or shovel, and water thoroughly.  Top this layer with a 2-inch layer of leaves.  Keep repeating the carbon, nitrogen, water, and mix steps until the pile is about three feet high.  Cover the top of the pile with leaves, straw, or other carbon-rich material to keep nitrogen (grass clippings, food waste, etc.) from getting smelly and attracting unwanted pests.

Moisture and Air

Turn the whole pile over with a hayfork or shovel every 2 to 3 weeks, adding water as needed to make the whole pile moist and damp.  This is where multiple bins can be helpful.  Dumping the compost materials from one bin into another adds air and at the same time readies the first bin for a brand-new pile.  Adding air feeds the aerobic bacteria that are breaking down the yard waste.  Without sufficient air anaerobic bacteria, which work in the absence of oxygen, take over and cause an awful smell.

A pile that is too wet also inhibits airflow.  The pile should be just moist enough that you cannot squeeze water out of it.  Too dry and the yard waste won’t break down.  If it is too wet and the pile will smell.

Keeping the pile aerated and moist speeds up the decomposition process.  Near the center, the pile should feel warm to the touch and on a cool day, steam may be observed coming off of the pile.

Is it Done?

With a good mix of carbon, nitrogen, moisture and air, within about a month the grass clippings, leaves, banana peels and twigs will have transformed into rich, crumbly “black gold” compost.  If the pile doesn’t heat up, or if it seems too dry or too wet, don’t worry — “Compost Happens.”  Remember, Mother Nature doesn’t turn the leaves and decaying plant matter on the forest floor, but woodland soil is rich with compost.

What To Do With It?

Once your compost is “done,” use this valuable soil amendment all over your garden.  It can be used as a top-dressing for lawns, mixed into raised vegetable or flower gardens, or even strained through cheesecloth as a “tea” and used as a tonic for plants.

The great thing about adding compost to your garden is that it will restore the soil’s fertility and microbial health.  Eventually earthworms, sowbugs, and numerous other micro-organisms will return to the soil, improving plant health.  Adding compost improves aeration and drainage in both heavy clay and sandy soils.

Resources: A Green Guide to Yard Care; Texas Commission on Environmental Quality GI-28

Check out Aggie Horticulture – Don’t Bag It™ – Compost It!!

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