After I decided to go all in on natural organic practices with my garden, the first step logically for me was to compost or what I call – making dirt.  Sounds funny but that is exactly what you do when you compost.  I mean, you’re doing what mother nature has done forever.  At first, I thought it wouldn’t be all that complicated either.  Just collect any biodegradable items, mix them together in a container, add water and then wait.  Heck, I could just throw the stuff on the ground and let it happen for that matter.  I mean, that’s how the farmers generally do it.  

But, as I found out through trial and error, it isn’t that easy.  Not that it is excruciatingly hard either but there are generally accepted practices and guidelines that must be followed.  Otherwise, you will get some ugly results that you and your neighbors won’t be too pleased about.  Thank God I have very understanding ones.

“Composting is a blend of art and science.”

So, how exactly does one compost to get great results you might ask?  And why should I even care to compost in the first place?  Two great questions.        

There are many reasons a gardener should compost.  The most important is that compost is so good for your soil that it is often referred to as “black gold”.  When I started this practice, my son who was about 8 at the time heard me refer to it as just that – black gold.  He told my wife that I was growing gold in my backyard and thought that was so cool.  After I stopped laughing to the point I almost passed a lung, I explained the whole concept to him.  That was the end of his interest in it.  

But seriously, compost is the best tool you can have to improve your soil quality.  Especially the very freshest from your pile of dirt.  It is teeming with all the macro and microorganisms you could ever want or ask for.  It will have nematodes, worms and all sorts of wiggly characters that will enhance your soil’s ability to strengthen your plants.  It affects everything with regards to your plant’s productivity.  Nothing else about your garden affects your success more than a great soil.  

Beyond all the visible critters and such, your compost will deliver readily available nutrients to your plants, add to the soil’s water holding capabilities through the organic matter it is made up of and act as a PH buffer for your plants.  It allows your soil to release its nutrients in a form and consistency that the plants are better able to use.  I often brew a tonic that is called compost tea.  Many a gardener uses this to fertilize their vegetables with great results.  I also use it as an amendment to almost every area of my landscape.  It can be used in a myriad of ways around your house.

Composting is a blend of art and science.  It is an art in the fact that it takes the right blend of materials to make the final product.  You are the one who combines the raw materials to make the final product.  And it is also a science in that the mix has to have certain properties and quantities in order to create the activity to do the actual work of composting.  So, the question remains, how exactly does one compost?  

I began knowing bupkis about composting.  I bought my first composter when my county sold them at steep discounts and I just dove in.  I read a pamphlet from the manufacturer and off I went.  By the end of that first summer, I had a very small amount of what I would classify as useable soil.  It was ok but certainly not what I envisioned.  So, thus began a quest to master the art of composting.  A lot of trial and error, investigation and plain old work that winter had me convinced I could make my own soil and in quantities that would seem worth it.

I did much better the next year.  So much so that when the following spring rolled around, I bought two more of those composters.  Success after all, creates momentum.  I have now been composting for almost 15 years and have learned more than a thing or two just through repeated attempts.  I have not had to buy any commercially produced soil in years.  My hope here is that I can help you avoid the trials and errors I (and some of my neighbors) endured and allow you to jump right into being a more than capable composter.

Composting works on a very small scale.  It involves microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes.  It also involves macro organisms such as earthworms, insects, spiders and nematodes.  These are the main workers that will be actively breaking down the materials you blend together.  Without these actors, nothing would decay and thus, decomposition would never take place.

In order to get them to do their work, they need certain conditions to thrive in.  Simply, they need Carbon (energy), Nitrogen (protein), oxygen and moisture.  Without any of these and at the approximate right balance, your materials will not compost correctly.  It is that balance of materials that is at the core of composting.  Composting can be akin to baking a cake.  If you combine all the ingredients at once, you will fail.  But if you follow the directions, and add as you go, you will get a cake (albeit a dirt cake).  And with time, each cake will get better than the one before.  So it goes with composting.

The materials you can use abound.  They are classified as either browns (high-carbon ingredients) or greens (high- nitrogen ingredients).  The most readily available browns are dried leaves, paper, cardboard, shredded newspaper and manure.  The most available greens are fresh cut grass, used coffee grounds, kitchen vegetable scraps and hedge clippings.  There are numerous lists of additional compostable materials available on the internet.

When people ask me how to get started, I tell them, slowly.  You needn’t rush to get latest, greatest composter you see in the home improvement stores or in any of the gardening magazines.  Those can come later.  Composting can take many forms.  From the pile behind your garage to the rolled fence cylinder you can build and fill, composting can take place anywhere you collect materials.  Many a farmer just piles up the various ingredients and turns it with a backhoe once and a while – letting mother nature do its stuff with a little assistance.  It’s all boils down to what you feel comfortable with and how much effort you are going to put into it.  

I suggest a measured approach.  If you overreach, you could wind up with disappointing results and thus quit.  I bought a small plastic composter called the Earth Machine.  I did this for one consideration.  Our area has always had field mice, gophers, and ducks since we are near water.  I wanted something that would deter them from feasting on the pile and these fit the bill.  You need to consider the area you live in and what your area’s wildlife is like.  If it’s like mine, then you need a fully encapsulated unit.  If not, then you have more options.

And the options are wide and varied.  For a beginner composter, I would suggest an encapsulated system whether that be an on ground unit like mine or a suspended tumbler unit.  If you think that turning a pile in a ground unit will be a challenge, then I would pick a tumbler unit for ease of use.  I would research the various types and decide what works best for you.  

One other consideration is the sighting of the composter in your yard.  Mine are behind my garage.  They get about 7 hours of sun so they heat up pretty well.  My main two considerations were that I wanted them to be in a convenient yet unobtrusive site.  Where I have them is near my rain barrels and close to the garden.  They are not in any line of sight where I can see them from the back of my house and my neighbors cannot see them either given my neighbor’s wood fence.   It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Once you’ve picked the unit you want to use and have sighted it, you then have to fill it.  If you are using a ground based composter, it is wise to remove any ground cover such as grass or weeds before setting the composter in place.  It is also advisable to put about an inch or better layer of sticks (or any coarse items) on the bottom to enhance natural aeration. And here is where the art and the science of composting comes into play.  You need a certain mix of carbon and nitrogen laden materials in order to have a successful outcome.  There is a lot of opinion about the exact mix needed.  There are references about greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon).  My general rule is 5 parts brown to 1 part green.  It has always worked for me and it makes it easy to deal with.  Initially, you lay the materials into the composter in layers.  You can eye up the five to one ratio pretty easily when you have done it a few times.  When I started, I actually measured them out so I would get a quick feel for it.  And, in mine and others people’s opinions, if you get it close, that will work just fine.  

After you set the layers of the materials in place, you then water them down so that they are moist but not soaked.  If you are putting alternate layers over each other, it’s best to moisten them individually instead of waiting until the whole pile is in place.  Soaking will deter the buildup of the various workers in the pile and it’ll seem like nothing is happening.  Your goal here, after all, is to induce the decomposition process.  You want your materials to be like a moist sponge.  

Once you have set the materials in place and have moistened them, you will need to turn the pile eventually to continue the process.  My advice would be to buy a compost turner online.  I have a metal turner that I thrust into the pile, turn it and then pull up.  It has collapsing prongs that open when you turn it in the pile.  These catch the product as you pull the turner up to the top of the pile.  How often you turn it is generally determined by how fast you want the process to complete.   I turn a new pile every 3-4 days at first for about 2 weeks and then every week thereafter.  I turn it when the pile gets to the generally agreed upon temperature of 140 degrees.  This is the temperature at which the heat will break down any seeds or pathogens in the materials you used, preventing them from being transferred to your plants.  You determine the temperature by using a compost thermometer which can be purchased online very inexpensively.  Simply push the thermometer and it’s long probe into the center of the pile and wait about 5 minutes.  If it is at 140 initially, you can turn the pile and repeat these steps after 3-4 days on average.  I would suggest taking the temperature every other day to track it accurately during the initial decomposition process.  As time passes, you will continue to add new product to the pile.  Then, as you turn the pile, you are mixing in new food to the process.  This will keep the pile processing by putting in new feedstock which allows it to maintain the needed temperatures.  

Most home composters are content with a slow decay of the product which is fine. There comes a point when product will not heat up appreciably.  This is when you know you have finished product.  I always sift the compost to insure that I have a consistent product free of the larger chunks that are not quite totally finished when I decide to use the compost.  I just put the chunks back into the composter for further decay.

Check out more of Craig Bixby’s writing at Bix’sGardenBlast

Author: Craig Bixby

Craig Bixby’s gardening methods have evolved into what he deems natural gardening. His practices and procedures conform closely to what is commonly referred to as organic. His main focus is, and has always been, the health of the soil. Without that, he believes all else is secondary.
Craig has practiced natural gardening for the last 10 years to get the safest, freshest, highest yield from his garden. Currently he is advisor to the Remington Improvement Association garden group in Baltimore City where he focuses on establishing a community garden in the heart of an established business section of the city. He assists new and experienced gardeners with enhancing their gardens production through his natural gardening methods. In addition, Craig maintains his own suburban backyard garden which incorporates Hydroponic gardening for his root and lettuce crops.
Gardening allows Craig to slow down and reconnect with nature. His passion is to share his knowledge with others. Craig’s blog can be found at Bix’sGardenBlast. A website devoted to his gardening endeavors is currently under construction.