The Magic of Compost

By Robin Sweetser

If you are new to vegetable gardening, don’t let the fear of making mistakes hold you back. You might lose a few plants but that is how we all learn what works and what doesn’t.


Not Another Learning Experience

The first big vegetable garden I planted (way back in 1976) struggled to survive. The soil was terrible—just gravel with little topsoil and no organic matter. I didn’t realize that my backyard was also the leach field for our septic system! We lived on a 250 acre farm and could have chosen a much better location but I thought that vegetable gardens belonged in the backyard. I learned the hard way that soil is the key to a successful garden and it is much more important than what the neighbors think. The next year we plowed up a weedy side lot where I grew the best vegetables of my life in the deep, stone-free, sandy loam. Now that I live on a rocky hillside and am not blessed with perfect soil, compost has become my best friend.

The Magic Ingredient

Compost is the gardener’s secret weapon. It has been called the great equalizer because of its ability to fix any soil problem. Is your soil too sandy? Compost will hold sand particles together so they can absorb water like a sponge. Troubled by hard clay soil? Compost attaches to particles of clay, creating spaces for water and nutrients to flow to plant roots.

Compost Happens

A well-built compost pile needs only four things:

  • Brown matter. This is carbon-rich material such as leaves and spent garden plants.
  • Green matter. These are nitrogen-rich materials like grass clippings, weeds, manure, and kitchen scraps.
  • Water. The pile should be kept consistently moist, especially important if you add lots of dry leaves or hay. Usually rainfall is enough to keep it damp but in a dry summer you might have to spray it with water.
  • Air. Oxygen is necessary for aerobic micro-organisms to survive. They are the ones doing all the work of turning your garden waste into black gold.

There are some things you should NOT put in your compost pile such as kitty litter, pet poop, bones, meat scraps, dairy products, or grease.

If you are collecting grass clippings from the neighbors make sure they don’t use weed killers on their lawns. Those chemicals take forever to break down and will negatively impact any plants you use your finished compost on.

To Bin Or Not To Bin

Fancy bins are nice but not necessary. You can just pile up your ingredients on the ground. As long as the pile ends up being at least 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 4 feet deep it should be successful.

Alternate layers of brown and green matter when building your pile and add a few shovels full of garden soil to contribute those essential soil microbes. The more green matter the hotter the pile will get and the faster it will decompose. Heat also helps to kill off disease spores and weed seeds.

Many people turn their compost piles several times over the summer but I’d rather turn the pages of a book while lying in the hammock. Turning your compost helps speed up the process of decomposition but is not necessary. It will all rot eventually. When fall rolls around you can start a new pile while letting this one continue to decompose. In the spring peel the top off the first pile and you should find some awesome black gold at the bottom!

You don’t have to dig too deeply to discover the secret to a great garden—it is your soil and compost is a sure-fire way to improve it.

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