Compost is the lifeblood of any organic garden since it not only enriches the soil, but also improves soil structure. Both clay soil or sandy soil can be transformed into a productive loam through the addition of compost.
What is Compost?
Simply put, compost is decayed organic matter. That organic matter can be plant waste such as pea and bean vines, empty pea pods, corn stalks, as well as vines from cucumbers, squash, pumpkins or potatoes. It can be vegetable and fruit trimmings such as peels, outer leaves of cabbage or carrot tops. So pretty much any garden debris is fair game for the compost heap. The exception is any diseased plant waste. You certainly don’t want to perpetuate and spread the disease by adding it to the pile. Any sick/diseased plant material should be burned.
Other good candidates for the compost pile are sawdust, wood chips, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves and straw. However, there are some items that should not be added to the pile. These include meat, bones, fat and grease. All of these take a long time to decompose and are likely to attract undesirable animals. We’ve always homesteaded in bear country and the last thing we want to do is attract bears to our homestead.
How to make compost
Making compost is a simple process. The basic ingredients are organic matter as given above, a nitrogen source, adequate aeration and moisture. Nitrogen can come from numerous sources. Many organic growers use animal manure as the nitrogen source but you can also use commercial fertilizer, blood meal or even urine. Human manure shouldn’t be used in any compost that will be used for growing vegetables due to the risk of disease causing organisms. Once properly composted though, humanure (human waste) can be safely used around fruit trees and flowers.
A compost pile is made in layers. Begin by putting some coarse material such as brush on the bottom. Then lay on 6 or so inches of organic matter followed by a couple inches of manure, (or a sprinkle of your nitrogen source of choice) then a thin layer of topsoil. You can also add some wood ashes if you want or some bone meal. Finally wet everything down then repeat the layering until your pile is 3 to 5 feet high.
In a few days, your pile should begin to heat up and shrink. Both are signs decomposition is taking place. By the third week it’s time to turn the pile to aerate it. Using a spading fork, turn the ingredients so what was in the center is now on the side and what was on the sides is in the center. Three weeks later do the same thing. In about 3 months time the compost should be a crumbly black substance ready to work its magic in the garden.
Refining the process
The basics given above will produce the desired result but there’s a few things you can do to refine the process. The finer the organic material is, the faster it will decompose. To that end before we add vines, cornstalks and such, we chop them up with a spade, shovel or use lopping shears to cut them into smaller pieces. If you are really in a hurry, you could shred all material before adding it to the pile. We also confine our pile so it isn’t sprawled all over the place. This makes for a tidier composting area which may be important if you are composting in an area with neighbors close by that would object to an unconfined compost pile.
We’ve used several type of bin structures in the past to confine our pile. At our northern Maine homestead, we used a 2 bin affair made from lumber sawn from logs that came from our woodlot. We sawed the logs using our bandsaw mill. In northern Saskatchewan, because everything had to be flown in on a bush plane due to our remote location, we used materials we sourced locally, namely trees that we laid log cabin style to create a 2 bin arrangement.
A 2 bin or even a 3 bin set up makes turning the pile a breeze since it’s just a simple matter of flipping the material into the neighboring bin thereby freeing up the first bin so it can accept more materials. Here in Nova Scotia, we haven’t had time to build a dual bin composting area yet so in the interim, we set up a make shift affair by putting 6’ tall metal posts into the ground and wrapping some woven fencing wire around the posts. To help with aeration, we inserted a scrap piece of perforated pipe into the center of the pile once we started building it up.
Last fall, we filled that wire fenced bin to overflowing. Ron piled more garden waste next to it on the ground. It wasn’t long before the pile settled and started working. Ron heaped more material on top. By early winter, all the garden waste was in that bin and the bin was level with the top of the fence. It’s mid summer now and that bin has reduced to half the volume. Pretty amazing to see a big pile reduce down to half or less of the original volume.
While you can spend hard earned dollars on a lavish bin structure, we’ve always scrounged for building materials using what we have on hand. In addition to the possibilities given above, you could use cinder blocks for the sides of the bins, wood pallets or the lumber scavenged from taking apart pallets, chicken wire, scraps of metal roofing leftover from a roofing job or anything else you can get your hands on. I would not use pressure treated wood however or wood treated with creosote preservative.
Much has been written about the proper proportions of organic matter versus manure in building a compost pile. We don’t stress over such trivia as our experience has shown us it really isn’t that important since anything that is organic in nature will eventually do what comes naturally…. decompose. I think all of us know that once dead, any plant or animal will begin the decomposition process. As proof, walk through the woods looking at the forest floor. A quick glance will reveal organic matter in various stages of decay. All we’re trying to do with a compost pile is speed up the process.
One last thing… the secret ingredient! Find or buy some earthworms. After a soaking rain, you might find plenty on the road. Or dig around in the garden for some. Our manure pile has thousands so it’s easy for us to replenish the compost heap when it’s time. Dig a depression, drop the worms in and cover them back up. They will aerate the pile as well as help breakdown the materials.
Compost can be used in many ways. It can be used as a fertilizer around vegetables, fruit trees, berries and flowers. You never have to worry about it burning plants or applying too much as you do with commercial fertilizer. If anything, if you are like us, you will never have enough to go around! A layer of it can be spread and worked into the soil prior to planting but we prefer to use it more judiciously by using it to plant tomatoes, peppers and items grown in hills. We first dig a hole, then add a shovel full of compost, and finally set in the transplant. In the case of items grown in hills, we dig out a shovel of soil, add a shovel of compost, shape the hill over the compost using some garden soil and then plant cucumbers, squash, melons and pumpkins. The roots grow down into the rich compost and we are rewarded with abundant harvests as a result.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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