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Composting Tips for Beginners

Composting Tips for Beginners - St. Clare Heirloom Seeds

Q. I want to try out composting, but I find it daunting and am uncertain where to start, any tips?

A. Sure thing! Compost is great for your heirloom vegetable, fruit, or flower garden, and essential to organic heirloom gardening, as it is natural, nutrient-rich fertilizer right from materials you most likely have on hand, or can get easily. Not only is compost great fertilizer, it improves the structure of your soil, and it’s water retaining capabilities(less work to water your garden!). All of the above reasons will help produce healthier plants in your garden, what’s not to like about compost?!?


Making compost isn’t as difficult or complicated as it may seem, and the great thing is it utilizes things you would usually throw away. There are many, many methods of making compost, but the fastest way to get compost ready for this years’ garden is the “hot” method, or what’s called an active composting pile. With not too much work on your part you can have nice, nutrient-rich, soil enhancing compost in only about 30 days time.

One of the the first helpful tips is to shred or chop the materials before adding them to your composting pile. You don’t have to get overly meticulous about this, but the smaller the pieces the better, as they will break down faster, which gives you less work in the long run(as you won’t have to turn the pile so many times before you have the finished results), and has you adding your “garden gold” to your heirloom vegetable, fruit, or flower that much sooner.

To keep things simple remember two basic types of ingredients that work best in compost, those with high nitrogen content, the “Wets” or “Greens”, the  and those with high carbon content, the “Dries” or “Browns”. Basic Wets/Greens commonly used are:

  • grass clippings
  • veggie/fruit scraps from the kitchen
  • coffee or tea grounds
  • animal manure(only form herbivores, not cats or dogs, and aged manure is best)
  • trimmings from plants
  • weeds that haven’t gone to seed
  • crushed eggshells(crushing them helps them decompose a lot faster).

These items provide the protein which help the good bacteria in your compost pile  to grow, breed, and multiply fast, thus creating the extreme heat needed to make your composting pile decompose quicker. The Dry/Browns typically added to composting piles would be:

  • Fall leaves
  • straw
  • pine needles
  • sawdust
  • cornstalks
  • paper( including paper plates, coffee filters, napkins, printing paper, newspaper)
  • plain corrugated cardboard(without shiny printed sides, and with tape removed)
  • cotton fabric
  • chipped tree branches/twigs
  • and even dryer lint.

These materials supply the carbohydrates/energy needed by all organisms in soil to survive.

A healthy composting pile likes it best with more carbon than nitrogen materials. A simple rule of thumb is to use one-third green and two-thirds brown materials. The bulkiness of the brown materials allows oxygen to penetrate and nourish the organisms in your compost pile. Too much nitrogen ends up in a dense, smelly, slowly decomposing anaerobic mass. Not pretty!

Another important element in your composting pile is moisture, make sure you wet it down every so often, keeping the moisture level about that of a damp/squeezed out sponge throughout the pile. Don’t soak the pile too thoroughly, you don’t want it sopping, just moist. In fact, some people like to cover their compost with a tarp, plastic sheeting, wood, or even an old scrap of carpet, it helps retain moisture and the heat, both essentials to the “work” of a composting pile.

The last element most folks agree is important in maintaining your composting pile and keeping it “working” at a decent rate of decomposition is turning the pile every so often, usually once every week or two is best, although some people prefer to wait until 4 weeks out. It’s quite simple, just start at the top with a pitch fork, moving the composting pile from spot A to spot B, stirring the materials up as you go. This way all the ,materials at the outer edges of the pile that haven’t been heating up and decomposing get some “working” time at the center of the pile, and it keeps the decomposition even throughout.

There are numerous ways to contain a composting pile. You can just build your pile right out in the open, piling it high as you go. You can build a very simple fencing around it by making a loop of wire fence 3-4 ft. in diameter, and hooked together at the ends with bits of extra wire left on one end when you cut it. When it comes time to flip your pile, all you have to do is unhook the wire fence lift it off the pile, move it over and move the pile over, stirring the contents as you go. Some people like to make a sturdy 3 sided wooden “fence” around their compost bin, that will last for years. You can even find plans online for simple or more complicated homemade composting tumblers. Or, if you have the budget for it, there are some great, very easy to use commercially made composting tumblers. You can put any of these composting pile containers anywhere, but the handiest spot, if you have the room is right in the garden, as that’s where a lot of your green materials will come from, and when you go to use the finished compost it’s right there handy to your plants!

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