Compost - The Best Soil Additive for Your Garden

You may have heard a lot about compost, but aren't sure how to create your own. Some may think it too messy or difficult. Compost, in fact, is very easy to make, and is a natural occurrence in nature. Done right, it doesn't smell, and produces dark, rich, earthy material that is excellent for your garden.

A great many theories have been advanced on how to produce the best compost. The only real difference among the methods, however, lies in the speed of decomposition and the length of time it takes the material to reach the compost stage. Here's some of the methods you may wish to try:

Slow (or cold) Compost - This is the method for the gardener who is in no particular hurry for results. With a slow compost pile, grass clippings and other garden debris, as well as vegetable scraps from the kitchen are simply dumped into a compost bin or pile. It decays in its own time, and requires no work other than adding new material to the pile at hand. Within several months or a year, depending on the size of the pieces of compostable material, the pile will break down into black, crumbly, fertile compost.

Fast (or hot) Compost: To speed up the process, you need to know a little bit more about how composting works. An easy way is to remember the difference between green materials and brown materials. Brown is carbon-rich, and is easily identifiable as being, well, mainly brown. Old dry leaves, twigs, straw, shredded newspaper and hamster bedding are examples of brown materials. Green materials are high in nitrogen, and include fresh grass clippings, kitchen waste such as fruits and vegetables, and other fresh yard waste.

The volume of dry brown material and green material should be about equal. Layer green and brown materials on top of each other for best results. Keep the pile slightly damp, about the constancy of a wrung-out sponge. Adding composted manure will speed up the process even more, and can be bought by the bag in nurseries and garden centers. Turn the pile every few weeks to aerate the pile, as the micro-organisms that decompose the material need oxygen to thrive. If you want to be really fancy, a compost tumbler is a fun (if more expensive) alternative to manually turning your pile in a bin.

A practical way to compost in a small garden is to have two compost containers: one box can be filled, moistened, covered, and left to decompose, while the other box is the active one that you will fill with waste. By the time the second container is filled, the first should be ready for use in your garden. If you have a lot of compostable material, you can use two or three bins placed side by side.

Using Compost

Compost is ready when it is dark, crumbly and earthy-smelling. All plants benefit from good compost, but vegetables are the highest on the list. Soil that has been well dug and has had compost added to it will give the best results in your vegetable garden. If you have sandy soil, then you will benefit greatly from adding compost or manure, as it will help bind the material together so as to better hold moisture. On the other end of the spectrum, it will also break up clay soils into a more favorable consistency. For this reason, compost is known as a great soil conditioner and amendment.

While compost is not high in nutrients, it is full of beneficial soil microbes that will bring greater health to your soil. The humic acid contents will also help release nutrients locked into the existing soil for use by plants.

By Chris Molnar, editor of Goorganicgardening.com, a gardening site on composting and organic gardening methods. Click to read more composting articles .