“Feed your landscape, not the landfill” was the cry of the organic farming movement in the 1980s when we realized people had forgotten how important rich, complex soils are to the garden and farm. We had streamlined our aesthetics and “cleaned” our practices to the point of sterility and degradation, filling airtight plastic garbage bags with leaves and vegetable matter and hauling them off to the landfill in huge amounts. So huge, in fact, that beneficial things like tree clippings and lawn debris were responsible for almost 35 percent of our landfills. Gardens were considered successful if they were immaculate, highly controlled environments with few or no pests and decomposing material. And by taking away all the natural humus, we were creating gardens that were more and more dependent on expensive commercially produced fertilizers. Gardens, like all life, however, flourish with complexity and diversity.
Fortunately, garden science has relearned the lessons of previous generations of farmers and gardeners, practices that had sustained people and the earth for thousands of years. Georgians who grew up on family farms know well the value of recycling everything, from table scraps to yard debris. A thriving compost pile is now the hallmark of a truly successful garden, no matter its size. Compostable materials are making their way back into the azalea bed and the vegetable plot. Along with this “black gold” come the beneficial insects, too.
Just what is compost, and how can it make a difference in your garden? Compost is the end product of the natural decomposition of plants. It is essentially a rich-looking humus that comes from allowing plant remains to “cook” and break down into spreadable material that can hold moisture, sustain necessary microbes and earthworms, and provide some nutrients for your plants. It should resemble the fine humus you see in the woods under a bed of rotting leaves. The microbes and earthworms are working with fungi to break down your coffee grounds, tea bags, salad leftovers, eggshells and yard debris.
It is best to consider your compost pile a living organism. The pile needs air, water and good bacteria just like the rest of us. To make sure your pile gets enough oxygen to sustain life, turn it once a week or so with a shovel. It also helps to place a recycled wooden pallet underneath the pile to ensure circulation. Rainfall will keep the pile moist enough most of the year. During dry months, just spray it down lightly with the hose. (You don’t ever want your pile soggy.) We keep a tarp handy during heavy downpours. This can serve as protection from heavy rains that might wash nutrients away.
A typical compost bin is approximately 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide and high. If you plan to use yard debris as well as kitchen leftovers, you may want a somewhat larger bin, however. But don’t make the mistake we did and create such a huge bin that it is difficult to turn your compost easily.
Some gardeners just pile up their debris and scraps in a literal pile. This is fine, but if you want to keep the pile manageable, we recommend using a simple wire structure to give it shape. You can make this out of hog wire or reinforced chicken wire. Or you can build a wooden frame around two compartments so you have a place to turn your pile over into. There are also large plastic composting bins at home and garden stores, but we have never had much luck with these.
An effective compost pile will need a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of about 30 to 1. This translates into a lot of leaves and straw for a small amount of nitrogen-rich horse manure. Sheep and cow manure is also good. (Do not use dog and cat manures.) Chicken manures are a challenge because they contain so many weed seeds. Do not use meat or fat products; these will tempt unwanted large critters. We also do not recommend putting grass clippings that have been treated with herbicides and insecticides in your compost. Leave them on your lawn to decompose.
If the pile is properly “alive” it will cook. Ideally, we try to get our pile to about 130 degrees. Plant materials break down surprisingly quickly, and if there is enough air and water, there will be no adverse odors. Depending on the size of the things you put in your pile and on whether they are getting enough air and water, compost can take just a few weeks to mature. The climate around the pile has little to do with its ability to heat up – it’s the breaking down of microbes within the pile that releases the heat – so composting can be done even during cold winter months.
Even if your compost never gets to the perfect texture, you can still use it like mulch. Your plants will appreciate the compost’s ability to hold moisture and how it encourages millions of living organisms to return to the soil. Also, good compost provides some nutrients, but never in quantities that will burn your plants like petro-chemical fertilizers can.