For experienced gardeners, good compost is worth its weight in gold. There’s nothing healthier for your plants than rich black compost, but for most gardeners the only way to get compost is to buy it. We sell amazing amounts of compost and soils in our garden center, evidence that many gardeners aren’t making their own.
You already know how good compost is for your garden, but how can you have an unlimited free supply of it without a lot of hard work? We’ve seen all kinds of expensive gadgets for making compost, from rolling “drums” to plastic boxes, to tubs you bury underground. Even if they actually work, these toys will never generate enough compost for serious landscaping. The thing they do best is separate you from your hard-earned money.
It’s possible to complicate the subject of compost so much that you’d need a biology degree to make sense of it. Whole books have been written about it, and fancy research on the topic is readily available. I don’t pretend to be a compost expert; much of what I know about compost I learned by watching my Grandmother.
The first step is to stop throwing compost ingredients away. Compost is simply well-rotted organic material. Dead plants, leaves, wood, grass clippings, even kitchen waste can become compost if it’s simply mixed with air and allowed to rot. Packaging these precious raw materials in plastic bags and putting them out for the trash, or, worse yet burning them, is wasteful. Compost materials are available in abundance all around you, and the only other thing you really need to make terrific compost is time.
My Grandmother didn’t have any more time than you do, so she made compost with the least effort possible. Next to her vegetable garden she made a three-sided box with old cinder blocks (railroad ties work great, too). Anytime she had any kind of clippings, cuttings, peelings, garbage, dead plants, used potting soil or other yard waste she just added it to the pile inside the box. Sometimes the box would be completely full, but over time it would settle and she would add more.
Every spring she spread the rotten stuff on her garden and tilled it in. She mulched her vegetables using rotten stuff from the box, to keep down the weeds. Any time she planted anything in the yard she’d raid the pile, mixing the compost in as she planted. Not scientific, but I can testify that she had the most gorgeous black fluffy garden soil I’ve ever seen, and she grew terrific vegetables.
When Marjorie and I bought our first house and we wanted to landscape, there was no compost, only gooey clay soil. I built a compost bin like my Grandmother’s but with some low-tech enhancements. I set it into a bank so I could dump my wheelbarrow into it from the uphill side, and I built a second box right next to it. Since I was impatient, I forked the pile from one box to the other a few times, turning it over, to speed up the process. Mixing compost with air really speeds up composting.
After a few years we had all the compost we needed, so I stopped turning the piles. I just switched each year from one box to the other, so I wasn’t adding fresh stuff on top of the old pile. Once the older compost was used up, I would switch sides.
Now, compost experts will find many faults with my method. The most important is that, without carefully managing the temperature of the pile, we didn’t sterilize all the compost evenly. It would be possible for weed seeds, insect eggs and possibly plant diseases to survive and get spread around. In theory, bagged compost you buy is sterile,
and if that’s important my method isn’t for you. I think the perfect can be the enemy of the merely good; plentiful free compost beats skimpy expensive compost you have to buy and haul home.
The important thing is to start right away, and to never again throw away, burn or bury kind of yard waste. With luck, your neat-nik friends will bring all their yard waste to you and help you build your pile. You can pay them back with one-pound tomatoes from your garden.
Editor’s Note: Steve Boehme and his wife Marjorie own GoodSeed Nursery & Landscape, located at 9736 Tri-County Highway, near Winchester, Ohio. More information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call (937) 587-7021.