What’s all the hype about compost?

What’s all the hype about compost?

  • By Nancy Watkins
  • /
  • February 2016-Vol.2 No.2
  • /

These days you cannot pick up a gardening magazine, read the garden section of a newspaper or attend a local vendor show without encountering something about composting.  Have you ever wondered about composting and why it’s getting so much attention?  Well, we’ve got answers, and we hope that you’ll feel ready to try it by the time you finish this article.  Even if you’re already composting, you may just find some helpful nuggets here that can make your composting efforts more effective.  

What is composting?

Compost is defined as a mixture of organic matter  — usually created from leaves, grass clippings, kitchen waste, and sometimes, manure (no dog or cat) that has decayed or has been digested by microorganisms.  It is used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients to plants.

Composting is a way to recycle your yard waste (leaves, grass clippings, garden waste, etc.), kitchen scraps (peels, trimmings, egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, filters, etc.) and other biodegradable products (newspapers, shredded cardboard, paper towels, etc.).  Let’s face it, we all seem to have plenty of these.  By throwing such items into a pile and letting nature do its thing, they decompose and are transformed into a usable product — compost —  that is great for your garden.  And how does this magical transformation occur?  Worms, insects, bacteria, and fungi break down the leaves and scraps and other organic materials into a nutrient-rich, dirt-like substance.  There are many different types of composting:   hot, cold, trench, layering and vermicomposting (using worms).  This article will focus on hot composting, but before we get to the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about WHY we should all be making compost.

Benefits of composting

Most of the raw materials capable of being composted — the kitchen scraps and lawn clippings and the like — are simply thrown in the landfill, pushed down the kitchen garbage disposal or tossed out in the trash.  Why not put all this waste to good use?

By regularly adding compost to your garden soil, you will:

  • Improve your soil structure
  • Improve the nutrient-holding capability of the soil
  • Promote healthy plants
  • Reduce what is sent to the landfill

Unstructured Compost Pile

Unstructured Compost Pile

What is the compost recipe?

The recipe is pretty easy.  First, you need a location in your yard away from the house.  It could be enclosed or simply  an unstructured pile.  

You need a mixture of “browns” (carbon) and “greens” (nitrogen).  “Browns” are items like leaves, sticks, dryer lint and papers.  “Greens” are items like fresh grass clippings, kitchen waste, flowers, coffee grounds and tea bags.  

You should chop or shred both “greens” and “browns” for faster decomposition by using hand pruners, a lawn mower or weed trimmer.  You will have plenty of microorganisms to get the process going.

Add water, but not too much.  The debris should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge.  You will add “air” as you mix the pile. Use a 3 to 1 ratio of browns to greens; in other words, the breakdown process works best when you have three parts “browns” to one part “greens”.  This is known as your carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio.  If the pile starts to smell, add more “browns.” If it is too dry, give it a drink, but again, not too much.

Tools:  You can use a pitchfork for turning, a long-stemmed thermometer to check the internal temperature, a composting bin or a pile, and a wheelbarrow to haul compost to your garden beds.

Building and maintaining the compost pile

How hard can this be?  What do I need to do?  What is my investment in terms of time and money?   

There are several compost tumblers available on the market, and you may find you like using one. Minor assembly is usually required, and you may want to post a daily reminder to yourself to rotate the barrel!  There are also plastic compost bins available for  purchase.  If you are using a compost tumbler or ready-made bin, add “browns” and “greens” using the same 3:1 ratio discussed above, and be sure to follow the instructions included with your bin.

Building your compost pile is not hard, but will require some time and a few supplies.  You can sturdily frame the area with pallets or wooden walls.  Or even easier yet, build an unstructured pile.  Locate your container or pile in a partly-shaded area with good drainage and make sure you have plenty of space and access to water.   A compost bin or pile should be able to hold 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet of materials.

Start by adding a layer of sticks or twigs on the bottom to aid in aeration and drainage, followed by a layer of “browns” and then  by a layer of  “greens.” Remember the ratio is three “browns” to one “green.” Repeat layers until all materials  are used. You can also save your leaves in the fall and add them to your pile as needed.  You will need to mix your pile to ensure everything is evenly distributed.  Add water as you build the pile so the pile is moist but not too wet. Also make sure kitchen scraps are buried deep within your compost pile to prevent critters or pets from digging in the pile.  Remember, you are building a compost pile, so it doesn’t need to be perfect.

The compost pile will begin to “heat” up within a few days.  This heat is important to kill off weed seeds and harmful organisms.  It is common for the temperature to reach 150ºF – 160ºF, but try to maintain temperatures between 120ºF -140ºF during the composting process.  If your pile does not heat up, add more “greens.” When too warm, turning the pile more often will help to cool it off.  You can purchase an inexpensive, long-stemmed thermometer to insert at the center of the pile to get an accurate temperature reading.  

You will need to “turn” your pile occasionally to add oxygen for the microorganisms to breath.  You can use a pitchfork to do this task. This will help keep the microorganisms alive and aid in decomposition.  Don’t forget to check the moisture level!  If it is too wet, add more “browns.”  If too dry, add a little water.  

How long does it take?

So you have built your compost pile, checked on it and turned it.  Now you’re probably wondering:  How long before you have good compost for your garden?

You should have good compost in about 4 to 5 months.  It could take less time if it is warm outside and the materials were chopped, kept moist and turned regularly.  It could be longer if the outside temperatures were on the cooler side.   You want to stop adding to your pile as the composting process comes to an end.  You will notice the pile shrinking.  When composting is complete it will be dark and crumbly with a pleasant smell.  Now it’s time to spread it over your garden and start a new pile!  Or, you may wish to store some of your compost elsewhere, using it whenever you need it. 

With a little practice, patience and fine tuning, you will find that this process is pretty easy, and, best of all, your plants will thank you.  


“Backyard Composting,” Va. Coop. Ext., http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/HORT/HORT-49/HORT-49-PDF.pdf

“Composting Your Organic Kitchen Wastes with Worms,” Va. Coop. Ext., http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/442/442-005/442-005.html

“Composting”   Va. Coop. Ext., (Carol Bartram) http://offices.ext.vt.edu/hampton/programs/anr/training-presentations/composting.pdf

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