When I first moved into my current home, the back yard was a drab, dry dirt pit. There was no grass and the soil was dense, lifeless clay. After rain, the mud was slick. After a few days in the hot Texas sun, cracks would form and dust would fill the air. When I’d dig up a shovel full, I would find rocks the size of my head and no sign of life. I couldn’t stand it. Though Nick thinks I’m crazy for doing as much yard work as I do (our house is a rental), I wasn’t going to look out my office windows every day to see a giant, ugly dirt patch. Plus, I absolutely love gardening. It is my hobby and stress reliever. I’d take two hours in the yard over sitting in front of the television any day. So I have spent the last two years rebuilding the soil in our backyard without any expensive tools or bags of topsoil. Intrigued?
Healthy plants come from healthy soil. The best way to achieve this is easy and free. I’m referring to compost. Compost is beneficial in dozens ways. If you are not currently using it in your garden, I hope I can convince you to give it a try.
What makes it so great?
Compost has so many benefits. Just think about why it exists in nature. Decomposition is the biological process were microbes decompose organic, decaying matter and turn it into nutrient-rich humus. Compost is you mimicking that process. Humus, or mature compost, is stable organic matter that can no longer decompose. It is the crumbly, sweet-smelling, black earth you find under a pile of leaves in the forest. Your compost will most likely not turn into pure humus because there will be matter at varying stages of decomposition, but this is perfectly fine.
It’s no wonder that gardeners refer to compost as black gold. It structurally, biologically and chemically improves any type of soil. It can retain A LOT of water; It adds moisture and nutrient retention to porous, sandy soil. It aerates and improves drainage in dense, compacted clay soil. It balances the pH of overly acidic or alkaline soils. It reduces soil erosion. It introduces microbes into the soil. A spoonful of compost contains billions of organisms hard at work!
I can’t talk about compost without also talking about earthworms. Compost is a nurturing environment for earthworms, and gardeners should treasure them. Seriously. They are an additional (and necessary) benefit to healthy soils. Earthworms digest large pieces of organic matter and it comes out as worm casts. This process is what makes nutrients available to plants’ roots. Worm castings (it’s worm poop) holds even more nutrients than its surrounding humus. Earthworms also improve aeration and drainage in soils. As they burrow and travel through the soil, they create channels that allow air to the plant’s roots and allow excess water to drain away from its roots.
- Increases the nutrient content of vegetables and improves taste (why do you think garden tomatoes are so delicious!)
- It puts your kitchen waste to good use instead of ending up in landfills where large amounts produce methane gas.
- Reduces the number of times you have to take out the trash
- Saves money on soil amendments and fertilizers
- Slowly breaks down organic fertilizer; you can never “burn” your plants like you can with synthetic fertilizers
- Reduces water bill because soil will retain more water
- Burns a lot of calories when you have to turn that pile!
So what can be composted? Anything! Well, almost. You can compost any plant matter from your kitchen or house that does not have any chemicals on it. Here are a few examples:
Onion tops and skins
Used coffee grounds and filter
Carrot and potato peels
Paper towels (dye-free) and paper towel roll
Vacuum bag contents (you may discover a lost earring later on!)
Shredded bills and junk mail
And of course, there are plenty of items in the yard that can be composted:
Sticks and twigs
Damaged fruits and vegetables
Old potting soil (treat this as it’s own layer)
Organic fertilizers (e.g. blood meal, bone meal)
There are certain things you should never compost. They may take too long to compost, harbor diseases, encourage weed growth or affect the pH balance of the compost. These include:
Your pet’s poop
Weeds gone to seed
You can put as little or as much time and effort into composting. You are ready to compost if you have a shovel and a 3’x3’ space in your back yard. A spade and a compost bin are also helpful but not necessary. You can buy a bin or make one yourself (out of wooden stakes and chicken wire). Just make sure the bin is large enough for a 3’x3’x3’ pile. I’ll talk about why those dimensions are important later. Also, a small compost bin with a carbon filter is very useful to keep in the kitchen. That way you don’t have to individually walk every banana peel to the backyard.
Compost piles need nitrogen, carbon, water and oxygen. Nitrogen comes from most of your kitchen waste (think green and wet). Carbon comes from most yard waste (think brown and dry). Smaller items compost faster. So give the green top parts of your leeks and fennel an extra chop or two; if you have mulching equipment, use it for those dried leaves and twigs. Large sticks can keep the pile from compacting but they won’t decompose so you will have to pick them out when the pile is ready. In the spring, you will have a lot of green matter and less brown dry matter. If this is the case, check out the website or call your local municipal waste facility will likely have free mulch produced from collecting residents’ yard waste. In the fall, you will have a lot of brown matter from raking up leaves. Ask a friend or neighbor to save their kitchen scraps and pass them along to you. Karly does this for me! Then you are reducing TWO households’ waste.
Start with a brown layer and then evenly scatter a layer of wet green waste on top. Spray with the hose until damp. Sprinkle a small handful of organic fertilizer and then a thin layer of old potting soil if you have either. Keep layering in this way until you have a big pile. Think of it like building lasagna. Keep the pile moist but not soaked. Water the pile if it has not rained for a few days.
A proper compost pile will not smell like garbage and will not attract flies. This is done by ensuring the pile has the proper amount of moisture and air. ALWAYS add a brown, dry layer on top. Inserting a large stick into the center of the pile will ensure that the center stays aerated and you can use it to add green waste into the center of the pile. Turning the compost aerates it as well.
If you want low maintenance composting, you can do cold composting. Just throw together the proper mixture of brown matter to green matter and let it sit. Give it a turn if you want. It will be ready in 6 months to 1 year.
Generally speaking, the more you turn the pile the faster it will decompose. In order to do hot composting, you must have the proper mixture of ingredients, air and moisture and the pile must be at least the dimensions discussed earlier. As the microorganisms break down matter, they create heat. This heats up the center of the pile to 140 degrees. This can kill pathogens and weed seeds and quickly creates compost. You’ll know your compost is hot because when you turn it, steam will emerge and the center of the pile will feel warm. If done right, this compost can be ready in a few weeks.
Vermicomposting (worm composting) is another option, especially if you have less space. You can start this with a large bucket, some kitchen scraps, shredded paper or coir (coconut husks), and a handful of worms. The worms will eat up the kitchen scraps and multiply. You end up with worm castings and more earthworms to spread around your garden and place in some of your larger plant containers.
If you’re anticipating having a pile over the winter you can just let it go inactive and then reactivate it in the Spring. If you want to keep it active, you have to keep it insulated. Cover it with a dark tarp. Only add kitchen waste during this time.
Once the compost is ready you can add it as a soil amendment to your plant containers or with the top few layers of soil in your garden. You can also apply it as a top dressing and mulch around the plants. You can even make tea with it and use a couple of tablespoons in a gallon of water and apply to your plants!
Oh, so you wanna see my yard now?