The Good Compost Guide

Gloved hands stir a compost bin with a pitchfork.

Composting is an environmentally friendly way to reuse yard and kitchen waste by keeping useful organic material out of landfills, where it goes to waste. Compost improves garden soil by adding vital minerals and nutrients back into the ground. It is economical and easy even for homeowners with very small yards, or no yards at all. The key to successful composting is in creating and maintaining your compost pile. As long as you follow simple guidelines you will effectively put your waste to work and improve the vitality of your garden plants.

Compost Bin

Creating good compost begins with a bin to hold your compost materials. Many people choose to build their own bins, as this is the most economical option. A number of easy compost bin plans are widely available online. A practical compost bin is as simple as a four sided wooden structure that allows air to circulate. If you don't want to build your own bin you can purchase one online or at any home and garden center. Compost bins range in price and style, and it is easy to find one that is suitable for any space. Whether you choose to build or purchase a compost bin, be sure to locate it in a shady spot near a water source.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson adds, "Tumbling compost bins are easy to keep aerated."

Compost Materials

Add a 6-inch layer of "brown" organic material, to the bottom of the compost bin, including straw, old leaves, sawdust or hay. Add 3 inches of "green" organic matter on top of the brown layer. This includes grass clippings, table scraps, manure or high-nitrogen fertilizer. Add some water to the pile, just enough to moisten the materials, and continue layers in the same manner. Turn the pile every few days to help the air circulate and promote decomposition. Cover the pile with a tarp if you do not have a lid on your composter.

TIP: Susan advises, "Keeping a lid on your compost will discourage animal pests."

Items to Avoid

You should never add meat or bone scraps to any compost pile. Not only do these take much longer to decompose than the rest of the pile, but they also begin to smell foul very quickly and attract all sorts of pests. The same is also true of fish and dairy. While animal manure can be very beneficial to a compost pile, do not use cat, dog, pig or human waste because they can be diseased to an extent that even the heat from the compost pile will not sterilize them enough for safe and effective use. While some forms of ash can be beneficial, those obtained from coal generally contain materials that damage plants. Avoid using leaves from the magnolia, oak, holly, black walnut, and poison ivy as they can either be damaging or take too long to decompose. Do not add diseased plant material of any kind to your compost pile, or weeds that have gone to seed.

TIP: Susan says, "If you compost pile smells, you may have too many carbon materials and not enough nitrogen materials in the pile. An odor is also possible if your pile is too small or is either too wet or too dry."

Using Compost

Depending on the type of compost bin you have, compost will be ready for the garden when it is lightweight and resembles soil. Scatter compost on top of flower or vegetable beds or mix in your garden soil to increase nutrients.