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Composting in Your Small Garden

Dolores has landscaped for private clients, maintained one client's small orchid collection, and keeps 30 houseplants.

Compost: yard waste, egg shells, and roses. Kind of pretty, isn't it? (Photo by Dolores Monet)

Compost: yard waste, egg shells, and roses. Kind of pretty, isn't it? (Photo by Dolores Monet)

Why Compost?

Compost is the most economical, sustainable, and practical fertilizer. It saves you money and helps the environment by cutting down on waste and chemical run-off. Compost enriches your garden with natural ingredients and reduces the need for costly chemical fertilizers which leach mineral salts into the groundwater, polluting rivers and streams.

Years ago, before I composted, I used to look at all those giant plastic bags of leaves lining the streets and thought they were such a waste. Now, not only do I never send my leaves to the dump, I take my neighbors' leaves as well. I love the idea that rubbish can be so useful.

Composting is an ancient practice used in Mesopotamia before the time of Moses. Biblical references mention compost as do Greek and Roman writings. Old manuscripts suggest the use of ashes, straw, chaff, crushed bone, and waste wool. Some historians believe that the blood of animal sacrifices was used in compost piles.

Early American colonials learned from indigenous Americans to plant one fish for every corn plant. They later used river bottom soil and muck mixed with manure. People in the south used cottonseed meal. Manure was easily procured then, in an agrarian society.

Albert Howard, the father of the modern organic method, learned the sandwich-style layering technique while in India. He then discovered by experimentation that the most productive compost heap consisted of three times as much plant matter as manure. Indeed, the organic movement grew from the compost! In 1942, J. Rodale, pioneer of the organic movement, used Howard's ideas and added knowledge with further experiments like adding rock powder and shredding materials for speed of decomposition.

Compost Yard Waste

Green materials and plant trimmings. (Photo by Dolores Monet)

Green materials and plant trimmings. (Photo by Dolores Monet)

What Is Composting?

To compost is to use the natural process of decay in a beneficial manner and enrich your garden soil. Organic matter is broken down by microorganisms, rendering yard waste and other materials into nutrient-rich fertilizer. Bacteria and other microbes consume organic matter. That process of obtaining food and producing waste breaks down the materials in the pile, leaving you with a dark, rich, crumbly compost. Compost improves the texture of sandy soil and clay soil as well as the fill dirt often used by developers.

Understanding the science of composting is not really necessary. Many people use a computer in a productive manner without fully understanding the scientific technology of the process. So you too can compost properly if you follow a few rules and gain some basic knowledge of composting.

Organic matter used in composting is often referred to as:

  • Green matter: green grass clippings and other plant materials such as green garden trimmings and weeds, fruit parings, manure, coffee grounds, and other moist ingredients
  • Brown matter: dried, shredded leaves, dried grass clippings, shredded newspaper, dryer lint, wood ash, and sawdust

Compost Bin

Commercial compost bin.

Commercial compost bin.

The Compost Area

Smaller yards make a large compost pile difficult to manage. You may not have room for a large pile of garden debris and manure, but small gardeners can create manageable compost piles. It's best to locate your compost pile or bin in a sunny, out-of-the-way area.

  • Build a small-sized compost area with discarded wooden pallets.
  • Create an area by shoving four metal poles into the ground. Place extra poles between them, leaving one side open or hinged with wire. Wrap the area with chicken wire and fasten to the poles.
  • Purchase a manufactured compost bin with slats in the sides for air. Make sure there are openings at the bottom as well.
  • Make a small bin out of a plastic container or plastic or metal trash can. Drill holes in the side for aeration.
  • Commercial compost bins shaped like giant balls are convenient to move around both for mixing the compost and moving the finished compost to the area when you want to spread it.

Compost: First, Rake the Leaves

Raked leaves are a key compost ingredient!

Raked leaves are a key compost ingredient!

Compost: Run the Lawnmower Over the Leaves to Shred Them

Shredded leaves!

Shredded leaves!

Ingredients of a Compost Pile

In an urban or suburban setting, do not use fruit or vegetable parings as they can draw rats and create a stench. Never use meat products.

  • Grass clippings.
  • Leaves. Full-sized leaves take a long time to break down. In fall, run a lawnmower over a pile of leaves starting at the edges, a little at a time to chop the leaves into smaller pieces. You'll be surprised to see how that huge pile is reduced. That's when it's time to raid the neighbors' trash.
  • Shredded newspaper, torn or put through a shredder breaks down remarkably fast. Do not use colored inserts or magazines.
  • Vacuum cleaner dirt.
  • Dryer lint.
  • Food garbage. Coffee grounds, torn up tea bags, tea leaves, peanut shells, and rinsed and crushed eggshells.
  • Hair. If you cut the family's hair at home, toss it into the pile.
  • Plant debris from commercial tree trimmers. When they come through your neighborhood, cut down or trim trees and put them through that giant grinder - ask if you can have some. Cart home in a wheelbarrow, trash can, garden cart, or your little red wagon. (This stuff really smells great and using the trimmings can assuage feelings of horror when they chop down the trees.)
  • Topsoil leftover from digging a hole or planting something.
  • Sawdust and wood shavings.
  • Wood ash from the fireplace. (Never use ash from charcoal as it carries heavy metals.)
  • Manure. So many people now shop at farmers' markets, ask a farmer if you can stop by and pick up some manure. Horse, cow, and chicken manure are best. Never use dog, cat, or human fecal matter.
  • Commercial packaged dried manure or blood meal.
  • Bone meal, cottonseed meal, pulverized limestone, and phosphate rock.
  • Worms. While digging around in your garden, if you find worms put them in the compost. You can also add leftover bait worms. You can even buy worms online or from gardening catalogs.

Compost in Layers

Compost in layers.

Compost in layers.

Build the Compost Pile

A good time to start a new compost pile is in spring as you have so many garden trimmings throughout the summer and fall.

The base of the pile should be loose brush or plant trimmings, something that will not compact.

  • Layer the components, repeating layers. Manure will increase the temperature of the pile. If you can't locate manure, bone-meal, cottonseed meal, dried manure, pulverized limestone, and phosphate rock work as a source of heat. When the compost heats up after a day or two, it kills weed seeds, harmful bacteria, and insects. Personally, I don't put weed seeds or roots into the compost pile in case it doesn't heat up enough. Some composters claim that you can dump weeds with seeds in a bucket of water for several days to 'drown' them.
  • Keep the compost pile damp (like a squeezed-out sponge) not wet or soggy. Cover during rainy days. A soggy pile encourages undesirable microorganisms due to the lack of oxygen. Optimum moisture encourages the beneficial microorganisms that break down the ingredients in the pile. If the pile is too dry, water it gently. A dry pile won't have the right amount of microbial activity to create compost. Dry compost encourages woodlice, ants, and other unwanted pests.
  • After the pile heats up, aerate it with a pitchfork. Dig down and turn it over often for quicker results. Allowing air into your compost pile ventilates it and is beneficial to the microorganisms that turn all that rubbish into compost.

Compost: Chicken Manure

Here I am shoveling chicken poop. Check out the steam. That stuff was pretty warm. This was in February.

Here I am shoveling chicken poop. Check out the steam. That stuff was pretty warm. This was in February.

Fall Is a Great Time for Composting

If you start a compost pile in fall, add manure, and turn it several times a week, you'll have wonderful crumbly compost by spring. Fling it on or dig it into your garden. I promise your garden will be greener, lusher, and more productive than ever. Compost offers your garden the enriched soil and nutrients that encourage strong, healthy plants. Strong, healthy plants resist disease and pests and make your garden and home more beautiful.

Compost: The Final Product Should Be Rich, Dark, and Crumbly

Rich soil!

Rich soil!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2009 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on June 06, 2009:

Julia, is Bokashi composting in a tub with worms - never tried it, but check it out. Thanks for stopping by.

JuliaR62 from Madison, WI on June 05, 2009:

Hi Dolores,

This is a great hub about composting. There are so many good reasons to compost that it's a shame that everyone doesn't do it.

Have you ever tried Bokashi composting? It sounds good for urban composters but I don't know anyone who has actually done it.

Thank you for your hub.