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“Sold” on compost? Here’s how to make your pile

Creating a compost pile is one of the simplest jobs you can do around your garden and landscape. However, it is also just about the most effective use of your time because it pays big dividends in the form of vibrant soil and healthy plants.

As investments go, composting can’t be beat. Why? Because in its simplest form, it’s completely free. Starting and maintaining a compost pile won’t cost you a cent, and you’ll be reducing the amount of garbage that will otherwise be hauled away and dumped in a landfill.

In my previous column, I reviewed the basics of composting and what can be added to your compost heap ... as well as some things you should never use. If you missed that column, you can find it archived at my Web site. Go to www.landsteward.org and click on the Plant Man heading.

So now that you’re “sold” on the idea of composting, let’s get started on building your compost pile. As with last week’s column, we’ll go through the process using FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions).

Where should I build my compost pile? Just about anywhere will work. However, from an aesthetic perspective, you’ll want to locate it somewhere discreet on your landscape. You will also want to be sure that your pile is at least a few feet away from any structure – house, shed, garage, fence – because compost is home to a lot of little organisms.

What tools will I need? Nothing special. A garden fork or shovel. If you have a pitchfork, that would be handy, too. Other than that, you’ll probably use some of your regular garden tools, such a wheelbarrow, garden gloves and a lawn mower for mulching up leaves. As I mentioned last time, you’ll get better results if you chop up kitchen scraps before adding them, so you’ll need a kitchen knife.

Will I need a compost bin? A bin is not a “must have” item and you can literally build a compost pile on the ground. That’s the cheapest and easiest way. However there are benefits to using a bin. Bins help to retain heat and moisture, deter pests and prevent the lighter parts of your compost from blowing around in the wind. You can buy quite economical bins, or build one yourself.

How do I start my compost pile? Here’s a simple way that I’ve found to be effective. First moisten the ground with a little water. Lay down some small branches and twigs and maybe some other carbon-based (“brown”) material that you have not chopped up. This will allow for aeration. Start layering your materials, alternating between layers of nitrogen-based (“green”) and brown materials. Try to maintain the 25:1 ratio between brown and green materials. Again, for more details about what constitutes brown and green compost ingredients, refer to the previous column archived at my Web site, or contact me at [email protected] and I can e-mail a copy of the column to you.

Should I cover the pile? That depends on your weather conditions. If you experience excessive wet or dry conditions, I suggest you cover the top of the pile with a plastic garbage bag and weight it down with some rocks to keep it in place. This will help retain moisture or (in areas with heavy rainfall) prevent your pile from becoming waterlogged.

Now what do I do? You could just leave it. However, you can speed up the process by gently “turning” the pile every couple of weeks or so, using a garden fork or a pitchfork.

How long before I have real compost? The process takes anything from a couple of months to 2 years, depending on how well you shredded up the materials, how often you turned the pile, and the amount of air and moisture involved. When the material has decomposed and resembles earthy-smelling soil, it’s ready to use as compost. Probably, the most useable compost will be at the bottom of the pile. Remove it carefully with a shovel and use it as needed, rebuilding the rest of the pile and adding more materials from time to time.

If your landscape could smile, you’d see it grinning from ear to ear after you dig in some of that wonderful, all-natural, nutrient-rich compost that you created with your own hands!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org