The Lazy Gardener's Guide to Composting

Photo by Linda Ly

Composting is a science. Or it can be -- but it doesn't have to be. Other resources tell you to turn your compost every day, make it hot, don't make it too hot, more nitrogen, less nitrogen...

I'll be honest here. I do none of that, and every season I still get a goodly heap of what gardeners call "black gold" -- that fine, crumbly, deep-colored compost that smells of fresh earth and works magic on your soil.

When it comes to composting, there are two ways to go about it: hot composting (the first method mentioned above) and cold composting, which I'm a big fan of because it doesn't involve a pile of doo and it's a "set and forget" style of composting.

Cold composting is also called worm composting, because you let the worms (and other creepy-crawlies and microbes) do the work of breaking down your kitchen and garden scraps. A cold compost pile does get warm (but not hot), so it makes an inviting environment for worms. Cold composting results in compost that's a mix of worm castings (a euphemism for nutrient-rich worm poop, which happens as the worms eat and eliminate all your scraps -- think of them as nature's scrap-processing factory) and naturally rotted materials.

A cold compost pile generally takes about six months to break down and become black gold. While hot compost can happen as quickly as a month or two, what's the rush? You've got all winter to (not) work on it and you won't have to do any heavy lifting in the meantime.

Getting Started
Find an unused plot of dirt or grass in your yard, ideally out of view unless you want to look at a mound of compost every day. You will need a minimum space of 3 feet by 3 feet. The laziest method is to simply start composting in this allotted space and layer the scraps on top of each other as you go. This type of open pile might not be the most attractive, but it's the easiest (requiring nothing more than the land itself) and most convenient (when it comes time to harvest your compost for the garden). However, it could pose a problem if you regularly have raccoons and other critters in your yard that love to go digging through scraps of food.

For that or aesthetic reasons, you may choose to enclose your compost heap in a bin. A Google search will bring up endless options to buy any style of bin, but you can also build one on the cheap using recycled shipping pallets, a basic wooden bin using 1x6 pine planks, a nicer-looking (and rot-resistant) bin with a lid, or an efficient three-bin system for households that generate a lot of compostable waste.

Fill'er Up
The basic rule of thumb for cold composting is to keep a 3:1 ratio of brown matter to green matter.

Brown matter includes straw (never hay, as it contains seed heads), dried and dead weeds (again, without seed heads), fallen leaves, pine needles, shredded paper, and wood chips or sawdust from untreated wood.

Green matter includes kitchen scraps (never meat or dairy, as they can attract vermin), green weeds, garden trimmings, grass clippings, and cage litter from small pets like rabbits.

I find it easiest to keep a small composting bin or bag in the kitchen for quick disposal of scraps. Then, once a week I'll bring the pile of scraps out to the compost heap and add it on top, along with any brown matter to balance it out. You'll know your compost is out of balance if it starts to smell. With good air circulation and a 3:1 ratio of brown to green, compost should smell like the earth after a good rain.

If your heap is looking a little dry, hose some water on top to keep the worms happy. It should never be bone dry; proper compost has a "wrung-out sponge" type of dampness.

To Turn Or Not to Turn
One of the benefits of cold composting is never having to turn it. You just add your scraps and wait for them to decompose. An undisturbed compost heap will break down in about six months. Of course, if you do fork it up a bit, you'll encourage the heap to break down faster. Turning the pile helps stimulate microbial activity, loosen clumps and clods, and break apart rotting matter. Sometimes it's also fascinating to fork it over just to see what's brewing under all those layers. If you're diligent about turning your pile once a week or even just once a month, your compost could finish in as little as three months. Or, do it up lazy-style and let the process happen naturally.

An easy way to encourage faster breakdown is to finely shred or chop up all your scraps before adding them to your compost, especially scraps with thicker skins. So before you toss an entire avocado peel on the pile, take a few seconds to slice it up first.

If a lot of scraps come out of your kitchen, you may find your pile stacking up pretty quickly. Once it gets to about 3 feet high, start a new pile next to it. The first pile will decompose faster and more fully when no new scraps are mixed in with it. Within a few months, that pile of rubbish will magically transform itself into a mound of crumbly black soil ... that's when it's ready to go back into the garden!

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About the Author

Linda Ly runs the award-winning blog Garden Betty, which chronicles her adventures in the dirt and on the road. Her first book, The CSA Cookbook, will be out March 2015.
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