Compost Like a Pro

Master Gardener Offers Guide to Building and Maintaining a Compost Pile

Have you started preparing your garden yet? Have you considered complementing it with a compost pile? Composting serves several functions. It provides nutrition that will help your garden flourish. It serves as a buffer to lock in the soil moisture so you can water less often, saving a valuable natural resource as well as saving you money. And it reduces the amount of trash going into the landfills.

What can be composted?

Lots of things can be composted! If you’re out gardening and creating yard waste, that’s a perfect base for the compost bin. Think grass clippings, leaves, twigs or any excess vegetation.

Produce scraps can be composted as well. When I’m prepping food, I usually keep a scrap bowl that I can take to the compost bin when I’m finished. Newspaper, coffee grounds, tea leaves and eggshells are also great candidates for the compost bin. You don’t have to buy a fancy container; just make sure it seals to avoid a pesky fruit fly invasion. (Side note: make sure to remove produce stickers and the staples from tea bags before adding to the pile.)

Things that should not go in the compost bin include fatty goods, grease, meats, dairy products, fish or bones. These can attract unwanted varmints. It’s also a good idea to avoid adding any diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed. These can both cause unintentional additions of pathogens or seeds when applying the finished product. Do not add pet or human waste to the pile.

If using a worm bin, avoid adding peppers, onion peels or citrus peels. Worms can be a little picky and the flavor of these foods is overwhelming to them.

Building a compost pile

Composting can be as simple as creating a pile in your backyard or as complex as a three-bin system. It’s up to you and what you prefer!

The pile needs to be at least 3’ x 3’ x 3’. This gives enough space for the pile to heat up and start the process of breaking down. You can purchase a bin or tumbler to keep it contained and covered. You can also build a system from pallets, posts and chicken wire, or concrete blocks to designate the space. You can also just pile it up in a spot in your yard. It’s all about your preferences.

If space allows, a three-bin system is a great option: one pile for new material, one for material that’s actively breaking down, and one for finished compost. You can rotate which bin is in what stage as you continue to compost. With just one bin or pile, there is a point where you should stop adding to it and just let it break down. Otherwise, you’ll be adding material that is not fully decomposed to the garden.

It's a good idea to keep a good ratio of “browns” and “greens”. Browns are carbon-heavy materials and include dry leaves, wood chips, twigs, straw, eggshells, cardboard, newspaper and pine needles. Greens are heavy in nitrogen and include fruit peels, veggie scraps, grass clippings, coffee filters, tea leaves and fresh vegetation. A 3:1 brown to green ratio is the diet for the microbes breaking down the material into compost.

Maintaining your compost pile

Compost bins are pretty low maintenance but do require some commitment. Turning the compost bin every week allows for oxygen to get to the center of the pile and speed up the microbial break down process. Keeping the pile moist is also important for the microbial process. Consider soaking the compost pile once a week, but don't saturate it, though, as this can lead to a decrease of oxygen and create unpleasant odors. Compost should not smell; if it does, it’s an indicator that something’s going wrong.

Another maintenance tip is to purchase a composting thermometer, which allows you to take the temperature of the pile’s center. The natural composting process generates heat from 140°F to 160°F. Monitoring the temperature will give you peace of mind that things are breaking down correctly.

Compost timeline

The time it takes to break down material into a usable compost product can vary, but it will be a few months. The process is much quicker in warmer months because microbial activity tends to increase with heat. When building your compost bin,  make sure that the pile is in the sun. To speed the process up, you can turn the pile more frequently or break the material into smaller pieces.

How to Use Compost

Compost can be worked into the top 6 inches of soil to add nutrients to the garden. Adding compost also helps with soil structure, which can mitigate drainage problems in heavy clay. It can also be used as a mulch to insulate the soil or mixed in with containers to save some money on potting soil.

Compost is a complete fertilizer with equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Generally, nitrogen is used by plants at a higher rate while phosphorus and potassium can stay in the soil for a long period of time. It’s important to check with a soil test every few years to make sure these nutrients are not getting to excessive levels.

As the Cleveland County Horticulture Educator, Courtney DeKalb-Myers answers horticulture homeowner questions, advises and mentors the Cleveland County Master Gardeners, and teaches workshops throughout Cleveland County.

 Master Gardening Training Offered

Readers are invited to attend Cleveland County Master Gardener Training, starting the first week of August and running to the beginning of November. Classes meet from 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays and covers everything from basic botany, soil science, entomology, ornamental plants and growing your own food. Being a Master Gardener gives you the opportunity to volunteer in horticulture projects around the community, along with connecting with other passionate gardeners. Cost is $150 and space is limited. For more information, email Courtney DeKalb-Myers at courtney.dekalb@okstate.edu.

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