If you're wondering how to make compost and why -- well, read on for all the dirt. As gardeners can attest, we grow very attached to the stuff. In fact, when I moved to my new house many years ago, I took the dirt from my previous place with me, shoveling it into huge bags and hauling it on the road. The reason? This wasn't just any old dirt -- it was compost, a mixture of decomposing leaves and table scraps that helped fertilize my garden and make it flourish.
What's more, I'd made it myself! And now, you can too.
What is compost?
Compost is what's left when the bacteria in dirt break down a meal of leaves, grass clippings, and table scraps. The end product contains plant-sustaining nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and iron. But it's more than mere fertilizer; compost also regulates soil pH, improves soil texture, and helps retains moisture and microbes -- all essential for healthy plants.
"Compost provides a slow drip of nutrients and enables soil to better hang on to them," says Jeremy DeLisle, program coordinator for the University of New Hampshire Extension Education Center in Goffstown, NH. "It's a natural way to bolster gardens."
And since composting your table scraps reduces waste, it's also good for the environment, diverting leftovers from landfills. Plus, compost is relatively easy to make: All you really need is some dirt, leaves or grass clippings, table scraps, and plenty of time. Done right, composting typically takes around three to four weeks to turn these ingredients into dark, rich soil.
How to make compost
Nature creates compost all the time: Leaves and branches fall onto the forest floor, which microbes turn into more earth.
Humans, on the other hand, have to work a little harder to make or "cook" compost, but if you have a backyard and love a DIY project, here are the steps to take.
- First, you'll need a container for your compost. You can either buy a compost bin or drum for about $50 to $100 or build your own out of wood. Just make sure it's at least 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, which will contain enough mass to feed the composting process."It has to be big enough so that the internal core of the pile starts heating up and retains that heat," says DeLisle.An easy method is to screw four wood pallets into a square (there's no need for a bottom, it's fine if it just sits on the ground). Since compost can smell funky, keep it fairly far from your home.
- Next, layer the bottom of your bin with about one foot of loose branches. This allows air to circulate through the pile. Next start filling it with the right ingredients. One method for creating compost quickly is the "lasagna" method where you create layers.
- Over your twigs, start with a 6-inch "brown" layer of shredded leaves. You can also use whole leaves but shredded will have greater surface area and decompose faster.
- Follow with a 3-inch "green" layer of grass clippings, spent plants (without seed heads), and produce table scraps. Avoid adding meat, which stinks when it decomposes and attracts rodents and bugs.
- Dust with a half-inch of garden soil, which inoculates the compost with microbes.
- Repeat the previous step, layering brown, green, and garden soil until your bin is full. Sprinkle with water for the microbes. (Rain should be sufficient going forward, but if you live in a dry area make sure to keep your compost pile damp to keep microbes healthy.)
- Keep a smaller gallon-size container with a lid in your kitchen where you can toss table scraps to transfer to the bin outside every few days.
The best outdoor composting temperatures are 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. But you can start a compost bin anytime -- even in winter it will work its magic, just more slowly, so there's no reason to wait!