Compost Happens!

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Written by: Charlotte Glen, Horticulture Agent

There is a completely natural and readily available substance that is guaranteed to help your plants grow better. This is no scam; it’s compost! And the best thing is you can make it yourself for free! In fact, you may be throwing away materials you could be using to make this valuable garden resource.

How to Compost

Composting is simply the act of helping natural materials such as leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable scraps to break down. The finished product of composting is compost – a dark brown, crumbly, earthy smelling, soil like substance some gardeners refer to as black gold because of the many ways it benefits the soil and plant growth. There are many ways to go about composting, all of which can generally be categorized into two methods: passive or active. Passive composting methods allow nature to do most of the work, but take a lot longer to get a finished product. In passive composting, raw materials such as leaves, straw, grass clippings, and vegetable scraps are stacked into a free standing pile or placed inside a composting bin and allowed to break down on their own over the course of two to three years. This method produces good compost, just not very quickly.

Active composting can produce ready to use compost in as little as two months, but takes more work on your part. In active composting, raw materials are made into a pile similar to passive composting, but then the pile is turned every week to encourage rapid break down. In addition to more work, you also have to pay more attention to the details to be successful. For example you need to start with the right balance of brown and green materials. Examples of brown materials include leaves, straw, newspapers, and wood chips. Green materials include vegetable scraps, grass clippings, plant debris, coffee grinds, and animal manure, but not pest waste, which can contain harmful bacteria.

A 50/50 mix of brown and green materials should provide a good balance. Starting with materials that have been chopped into small pieces (1” to 3”) will help the pile break down quicker and more evenly. A few things that should not be added to compost piles include meat and bone scraps, dairy products, grease or oil, perennial weed roots like Florida betony or dollarweed, and diseased plants, since the pile may not reach high enough temperatures to kill plant disease organisms.

To build a compost heap, pile green and brown materials in 3”- 4” thick alternating layers in a free standing pile or inside a compost bin. Thin layers of soil or old compost are sometimes added to the pile to make sure plenty of microbes are present. If the pile is started with over 60% brown materials, it is helpful to add an additional nitrogen source to the pile, such as blood meal or nitrogen fertilizer. Make sure to water each layer as you stack it so the finished pile has the moisture content of a damp sponge. Turn the pile every 5 to 7 days until you can no longer recognize any of the original materials because they have all broken down to a crumbly brown soil like consistency and it has an earthy smell. This should take two to three months.

Compost Problem Solving

If your pile fails to break down properly it may be too small. Ideally you want a pile that is three to four feet tall, deep, and wide. Or it may be drying out – remember to water your compost pile occasionally to keep it moist. Also, if you are continually adding new materials to the pile it will never be completely finished. Stop adding new materials to the pile after a few weeks. Save these to make a new pile once you have enough. When the compost is finished, mix it into the soil in your garden and landscape beds and be prepared for amazing results!

Compost Tea

You can also use compost to make a liquid fertilizer known as compost tea. To make compost tea, fill a large cloth bag with finished compost and suspend it in a barrel of water for a few weeks. Nutrients from the compost seep into the water, which can then be used to water plants (no need to dilute it). Compost tea is especially good for watering young seedlings.

Learn More
If you have questions about composting, contact your local Cooperative Extension office. In Pender County call 259-1235, Mon – Fri, 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., or visit us online anytime or visit us online anytime.

Find out more about composting from these great online resources: