Tips and tricks for cultivating your own compost from all that fall foliage.
Garden cleanup, lawn mowing and falling leaves all provide materials that make autumn a good time of year for composting.
There’s no need for exotic ingredients, fancy equipment or a degree in soil microbiology to put together a pile that yields quality compost and is not unpleasantly aromatic.
KEEP IT ENCLOSED
You might look upon your compost pile as a pet, a conglomeration of millions of beneficial fungi, bacteria and other soil microorganisms. The pet benefits from the right housing.
So one item that can greatly improve your compost-making is some sort of enclosure — a compost bin. A bin can fend off animals, as well as retain moisture and heat generated by the hard-working compost microorganisms — especially important as outdoor temperatures cool.
And if nothing more, a compost bin keeps a compost pile from looking like a garbage pile.
Whether you purchase a bin or make one yourself, 9 cubic feet is the minimum size for a critical mass to generate and maintain heat.
Compost mavens will set up two or more bins. This allows ingredients in one bin to age and mellow while materials are being added to a second bin.
WHAT TO PUT IN IT
The two most important foodstuffs of composting microorganisms are carbon and nitrogen. Old, usually brown and dry plant materials, such as autumn leaves, straw and sawdust, are rich in carbon. The older the plant material, the richer it is in carbon.
Nitrogen-rich materials include succulent, green plant parts, such as tomato stalks, vegetable waste from the kitchen, and grass clippings, as well as manures.
Fuel your compost with a mix of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials. How much of each to add will vary with their composition and particle size; let observation and experience be your guides.
A long-probed compost thermometer and your nose are good monitoring devices. If your pile never heats up — and temperatures above 130 degrees are not uncommon — it could be due to an excess of carbon, weather that’s too cold, or materials added gradually over a long a period of time. Offensive smells and the presence of flies might indicate the opposite problem — too much nitrogen.
Too little water results in little or no activity, another reason why a pile may not heat up. Too much water drives out air and results in offensive smells.
JUST LET IT BE
You could do even more for your pile. You could chop the ingredients. You could stir the whole mass up and rebuild the pile after a few weeks or months.
If all this messing around seems like too much effort, don’t do it all. A casually made pile may not generate as much heat or finish up as fast as one deliberately assembled, but time has much the same effect on compost quality as does heat. Either way, any pile of living or once-living ingredients eventually becomes compost, recognizable as a dark brown, crumbly fudge with a woodsy smell.
Do pile those raw materials into some sort of compost bin, though.