Making compost is the ultimate in recycling. You take a bunch of icky stuff you normally would throw away–eggshells, carrot scraping, yellowed lettuce leaves–throw them in a pile with some dried leaves, leave it all there for a while, and voila! Rich, brown compost! And while making compost won’t exactly save the world, if all of us suburbanites made compost and used it instead of the petrochemicals we pour on to our lawns and gardens today, our environment would be cleaner and safer for us and our children.
OK–I’m finished ranting. Here’s how you make compost.
The only thing you need to begin are some dried leaves and an unused spot of ground that’s maybe 6 feet square. You’ll start with one pile half that size, but you’ll eventually have two piles going at once: one that you’re adding to, and one that’s “cooking.”
Start by spreading a thin layer of dried leaves on the ground (that’s the brown material), then add a layer of green material: kitchen waste, grass clippings, weeds. When the green layer gets fairly thick, add another brown layer. And so on until the pile is as deep as you want it. Because the material at the bottom of the pile is always decomposing, it never gets very tall. Ours get about 2-3 feet high.
Here are our two piles. They’re tucked away alongside a small shed, so you can’t see them from the patio. Notice that the pile on the left has lots of green stuff in it but the pile on the right, the finished pile, just has leaves on top.
This finished compost has been cooking since late last fall–organic processes work slowly in cold weather. During the summer, we’ll get a finished pile every two months or so. So overall, we get about three loads of compost a year. Here’s what the finished compost looks like when you push aside the top layer of leaves:
See how lovely and black that compost looks? That’s how you know it’s done–it’s a lovely, even, black color, and it has a rich, earthy smell.
When a load of compost is cooked, we screen it. We place a screen made of a wood frame and 1/2″ chicken wire over a recycling container, place a large spadeful of compost on top of the wire, and push the compost through the screen with our hands (wearing gloves):
The screening process will remove twigs, uncomposted material such as peach pits, and nonorganic matter that sometimes creeps in such as rubber bands. Here’s the screened compost in the pail. I wish you could smell the rich, earthy smell and feel how soft and crumbly it is.
Notice that you can still see some small twigs and pieces of eggshell. That’s fine. There are also many, many earthworms, centipedes, pillbugs, and critters too small to see. That’s even better–it’s living soil.
We take our finished compost to my vegetable plot in the community garden and spread it evenly on top of the soil. Each batch will cover most of my plot about an inch thick. I don’t mix it into the soil–I just spread it on top and allow all the soil critters to do the mixing for me. Because each type of organism has a preferred layer to inhabit–some live on the surface and some live far down in the soil–they will move around in the soil, and this will mix the compost in. By not digging the soil up, I also avoid exposing weed seeds and allowing them to germinate. (I also avoid some very hard but unnecessary physical labor.)
Notice that I don’t have a composting bin of any kind. Notice as well that I don’t turn the compost while it’s cooking. I certainly could, but that’s also hard work, and it’s not necessary unless you really want to speed up the process. I also don’t use any kind of soil inoculants. Everything you need to make compost is already present, so there’s no need to add anything more. And what you get in return is more precious than gold.