Ask any gardener who has a stop along the Sheffield Garden Walk, compost is where it’s at. Organic gardening is big with Chicagoans! If you are just a beginner, trying to add some color to your yard with flowers, or growing edibles to harvest at the end of summer, a good compost can make all the difference in your garden. And, no raised garden bed is complete without it. Making compost is easy and painless, it’s made of recycled garden and kitchen waste, and can also include paper products. We’ll help you get started.
Do you really need compost? Yes, if you’re trying to grow or sustain any kind of organic vegetative life outside your home. Compost is a soil conditioner, mulch, and fertilizer all wrapped into one. It helps fuel the soil with microorganisms that help plants stay healthy, while also adding nutrients to the soil. It also helps clay soil drain better, and sandy soil retain water. Additonally, it’s the most painless kind of recycling! If you don’t think you’re up for this kind of science experiment, read on. Here is an efficient was to build a great soil amendment, that is easy to store out-of-sight, breaks down fast, and never smells bad. The finished product is rich, dark, crumbly and sweet-smelling. Not as bad as you thought, right?
Where is the magic going to happen? In your kitchen or garden; close and handy, but out of sight, if possible. You can buy a compost bin, and we recommend one if you have the room in your kitchen. But, a bin is not necessary if you’re working outdoors. If you’re building compost from leaves and grass clippings and other yard waste, just build a heap and keep it covered with some polythene or cardboard. A bin certainly looks neater, and it will keep things contained. Even a simple column of 4 x 8 foot wire mesh will work. It is used to feed and condition the soil and in making potting mixes. Here is an interesting fact: Around 40% of your recycle bin’s contents are suitable for your home-composting project. That’s a little less than in your local landfill!
You can also buy a more permanent bin or build a three-bin compost system made from slatted wood or recycled pallets. Leave the bins open on one side so you can add compost materials and turn the pile easily. Cover the top of the bins with a sheet of plywood, as Chicago can be a rainy climate. If you have the space, and you’re in-it-to-win-it, a three-bin system allows you to turn the compost from one bin to another, and then store finished compost until you are ready to use it.
You will need two basic elements to get your compost pile started: green garden debris (grass clippings or old annuals); and, brown garden debris (dry leaves). The green ingredients are high in nitrogen; the brown materials are high in carbon. Be mindful of adding too many green ingredients. You may notice your compost will start to smell. And don’t get crazy; do not add animal waste, meats, oils, dairy, diseased plants, weeds that have gone to seed, or plants treated with pesticides or herbicides to your compost. Nothing good will come of that.
Try instead to create a compost pile with a balance of one part green to two part brown materials. This blend breaks down fastest. If this seems like a lot to keep track of, try this: add one garden-forkful of green material to the pile, top it with two forkfuls of brown material, and mix them together. Repeat! Continue adding greens and browns until the pile is at least 3 cubic feet (3 ft. x 3 ft. x 3 ft.). Why such a specific size? Here’s another interesting fact: piles of this size heat up quickly, and break down faster. Finally, add in a shovelful of finished compost or garden soil to help kick start the microbial activity in your pile.
A bit of water is also very important to the break-down process. You’re probably not anxious to get your hands in there, but compost with the right moisture level should feel like a damp, wrung-out sponge. Too much water can cause temperatures to fall within the pile. Not to mention, smell. Not enough water will slows down the decomposition, and keep the pile from heating up. Make a habit of checking your compost pile’s moisture level once a week, and adjust it if necessary. Increase the moisture by adding water. Add more brown ingredients to dry the pile out.
Once a week, get out there with a shovel and mix it up. Move the material from the outside of the pile in. This will prevent the material from compacting, which reduces airflow, and slows down decomposition.
If you remember the ingredient ratios, maintain moisture, and mix the mess up, you should have finished compost in about two months. You’ll know your compost is finished when it no longer heats up, and you can’t identify any of the original materials. The compost should be dark brown, moist and earthy smelling. Dig finished compost into your garden’s soil. You can use partially composted material such as mulch. So, you may not be ready to exhibit in the garden walk this year, but you could be a contender for next year!