Having an ample supply of good rich compost is the
gardeners dream. It has many uses, and all of those uses will
result in nicer plants. However, composting can be time
consuming and hard work. I place a reasonable value on my
time, so spending hours and hours turning compost piles doesn’t
qualify as a worthwhile exercise, at least in my book.
Nonetheless, I do compost, but I do so on my terms.
I built two composting bins. Each bin is five feet
wide, five feet deep, and four feet high. I built the bins by
sinking 4” by 4” posts in the ground for the corners, and then
nailed 2 by 4’s and 1 by 4’s, alternating on the sides. I left
2” gaps between the boards for air circulation. The 2 by 4’s
are rigid enough to keep the sides from bowing out, and in
between each 2 by 4 I used 1 by 4’s to save a little money.
The bins are only 3 sided, I left the front of the bins open so
they can be filled and emptied easily.
Photos of my compost bins are on this page:
I started by filling just one of the bins. I put grass
clippings, dried leaves, and shrub clippings in the bins. I
try not to put more than 6” of each material on a layer. You
don’t want 24” of grass clippings in the bin, you should
alternate layers of green and brown material. If necessary,
keep a few bags of dry leaves around so you can alternate
layers of brown waste and green waste. When we root cuttings
we use coarse sand in the flats, so when it’s time to pull the
rooted cuttings out of the flats, the old sand goes on the
compost pile. In or little backyard nursery we also have some
plants in containers that do not survive. Rather than pulling
the dead plant and the weeds out of the container, and then
dumping the potting soil back on the soil pile, we just dump
the whole container in the compost bin, this adds more brown
material to the mix, and is a lot easier than separating the
soil and the weeds.
Once the bin is full, the rules of composting say that
you should turn the material in the bin every few weeks. There
is no way that I have time to do that, so this is what I do. I
pack as much material in the bin as I can, before I start
filling the second bin. I pile the material as high as I
possibly can, and even let it spill out in front of the bin.
Then I cover all the fresh material with mulch or potting soil,
whatever brown material I can find. Then when I’m out working
in the garden I set a small sprinkler on top of the pile and
turn it on very low, so a small spray of water runs on the
material. Since I have a good water well, this doesn’t cost me
anything, so I let it run for at least two hours as often as I
can. This keeps the material damp, and the moisture will cause
the pile to heat up, which is what makes the composting action
Once I have the first bin completely full, I start
using the second bin. As the material in the first bin starts
to break down, it will settle, and the bin is no longer heaped
up, so I just keep shoveling the material that I piled in front
of the bin, up on top of the pile, until all the material is
either in the bin, or piled on top of the heap. Then I just
leave it alone, except to water it once in a while. The
watering isn’t necessary, it just speeds the process.
Because I don’t turn the pile, I can’t expect all of
the material to rot completely. The material in the center is
going to break down more than the material on the edges, but
most of it does breakdown quite well.
The next step works great for me because I’ve got a
small nursery, so I keep a pile of potting soil on hand at all
times. But you can really do the same thing by just buying two
or three yards of shredded mulch to get started, and piling it
up near your compost bins. If you do this, you will always
have a supply of good compost to work with.
Shredded bark, left in a pile will eventually breakdown
and become great compost. The potting soil that I use is about
80% rotted bark. I make potting soil by purchasing fine
textured, and dark hardwood bark mulch, and I just put it in a
pile and let it rot. The secret is to keep the pile low and
flat, so that it does not shed the rain water away, you want
the mulch to stay as wet as possible, this will cause it to
breakdown fairly quick.
So I keep a pile of rotted bark mulch near my compost
bins. When both bins are completely full, I empty the bin
containing the oldest material by piling it on top of my rotted
bark mulch. I make sure the pile of rotted mulch is wide and
flat on top so that when I put the material from the compost
bin on top of the pile, the compost material is only 5 to 10
inches thick. My mulch pile might be 12’ wide, but it may only
be 24 to 30 inches high. Once I have all the compost on top of
the pile, then I go around the edge of the pile with a shovel,
and take some of the material from the edges of the pile and
toss it up on top of the pile, covering the compost with at
least 6” of rotted bark. This will cause the compost material
to decompose the rest of the way.
Once you get this system started, you never want to use
all of the material in the pile. Always keep at least 2 to 3
cubic yards on hand so you’ve got something to mix with your
compost. If you use a lot of compost material like I do, then
you should buy more material and add to your pile in the late
summer or fall, once you are done using it for the season.
Around here many of the supply companies sell a compost
material that is already broken down quite well. This is what
I buy to add to my stock pile. But I try to make sure that I
have at least 3 yards of old material on hand, then I’ll add
another 3 yards of fresh material to that. Then in the spring
I’ll empty one of the compost bins and add the compost to the
top of the pile.
The pile of usable compost will be layers of material,
some more composted than others. Kind of like a sandwich. So
what I do is chip off a section of the pile from the edge,
spread it out on the ground so it’s only about 8” deep, then
run over it with my small rototiller. This mixes it together
perfectly, and I shovel it onto the potting bench.
Having a pile of rotted compost near your compost bins
is great because if you have a lot of leaves or grass
clippings, you can throw some rotted compost in the bin in
order to maintain that layered effect that is necessary in
order for the composting process to work well.
Sure this process is a little work, but it sure is nice
to have a place to get rid of organic waste anytime I like.
Then down the road when I have beautiful compost to add to my
potting soil, I am grateful to have done the right thing
earlier, and I know that I have wasted nothing.
Michael J. McGroarty is the author of this article. Visit his most interesting website, http://www.freeplants.com and sign up for his excellent gardening newsletter, and grab a FREE copy of his E-book, "Easy Plant Propagation"