A Basic Overview of Composting

Healthy Compost Has Worms

Basic Compost Questions Answered

What is compost really?

Compost is not the same as soil, but its usually used as an amendment to revitalize the nutrients and structure of soil. Sometimes referred to as humus, compost is a rich substance that is an amazing food source for plants and is essential for overall soil health. It’s formed when organic matter like leaves, grass, and even animals reach the end of their lives and begin to decompose. This decomposition process involves the assistance of multiple things in the environment, such as bacteria and insects, to release vitamins and minerals into the end product known as compost. The ideal compost looks like loose black soil, lightly moist to the touch and smells earthy. A finished compost pile in the backyard can contain many worms in it, feasting and assisting in the decomposition process.

Why don’t we just grow in compost?

Some people do grow directly in compost, but most gardeners simply amend their soil with it. The issue is mainly due to the amount of time and effort it takes to create it. For example, a thick tree branch or log can take up to 7 years to decompose. However, if it was buried under a layer of compost or mulched into smaller pieces, that decomposition time could be sped up significantly. Conversely, if it was simply laying on the ground in freezing weather for most of the year, there would be very little ecological bacteria or wildlife to break it down and it could take even longer than 7 years.

How do I get compost?

Let me start by saying that not all composts are created equal. If you make it yourself, you know exactly what’s going into your compost and can control the nutrient mixture. However, if purchasing compost from someone else, make sure to do your homework. Sometimes the large suppliers and retailers may sacrifice quality control for profit. For instance, they may use small pebbles as filler, chemically treated grass clippings, and can even inadvertently add invasive weeds or pests. If purchasing quality compost really matters to you, I would recommend finding local organic resellers. They are usually more than happy to discuss their process and how they source the materials for making it. 

If there's nothing near you and your only option is ordering online, then I recommend the Dr. Earth brand compost. Although it was on the more expensive side, it's the cleanest compost I've purchased from garden centers. I still recommend doing your own research, as this is just my experience with it.

How do I make it myself?

I think we need to answer this question in its own blog post or even book. There are many different methods, tools, and variables to consider if you’re going to make compost yourself. Learning to compost efficiently is similar to cooking, where the more you practice and understand the underlying ingredients, the better you’ll be. Even I continue to fail at making efficient compost after gardening for a few years.

If you can’t wait for my post and want to start now, I would suggest you save your grass clippings, leaves and other organic matter by piling them up in an out of the way corner. Avoid large items like branches and even twigs for now because they will take significantly longer to break down unless you mulch them into tiny pieces. Keep building the pile until it’s a minimum of one cubic yard (3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet long) so it can reach an optimal composting temperature. Once you’re done, do not add new material, if you have extra material you’re better off starting a new pile instead. You can water it and flip the pile with a pitchfork to keep it moist and aerated, but the aeration is not required and if it rains frequently in your area, you can skip the watering as well. Finally, the only thing to do is just wait and let it break down into that rich black earthy soil.