Composting 101

Martha Stewart
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Rake and compost pile

Compost is created in forests, fields, and plains around the world. It is the result of organic matter (plant parts and food scraps) decomposing with the aid of water, oxygen, invertebrate organisms (worms, slugs, sow bugs), and beneficial microorganisms (fungi and bacteria). Crumbly, dark brown finished compost is not soil, though it may resemble it; nor is it fertilizer. It is a soil amendment that can be incorporated into garden soil to help it retain moisture and nutrients.  This three-bin setup is the classic, DIY backyard composting system. It is the best choice for large families, rural properties, and avid gardeners because it has one pile to add to, one pile that is decomposing, and one finished pile to use in the garden.

1. Site Your Bin
Proper siting means easier management. Full sun necessitates frequent watering; full shade slows decomposition. The bin should be convenient to a water source.

2. Start with Brown
Begin your pile with an airy carbon layer, ideally a loose pile of fallen leaves.

3. Add Green
Aim for half as much green as brown. Too much green can lead to malodorous, slimy conditions.

4. Spring In Some Soil
A scoop of soil in the pile encourages microorganisms. Some experts recommend adding fertilizer, too, but a well-built pile will have enough nitrogen without it.

5. Repeat Brown and Green Layer
Continue layering browns and greens in a 2-to-1 ratio, ending with a layer of brown. Small pieces decompose faster, so consider cutting down any large ones.

6. Keep It Moist
Your pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge: moist but not drippy. Check often, and water as needed. On an open pile, use a tarp to hold in moisture or keep out rain.

7. Take A Turn
After a week, you’ll notice the pile start to heat up. Now is a good time to turn it with a pitchfork, mixing the layers. Turning provides oxygen for the microorganisms and facilitates rapid, even decomposition.

8. Keep Turning
Turn the pile weekly when it’s warm out. In winter, the pile may freeze and the process will slow dramatically.

9. Harvest the Compost
Depending on ingredients and conditions, your compost will be done two months to a year after you start the pile. Frequent turning expedites the process.

When compost is ready for use, it will be dark brown, free of recognizable ingredients, and inoffensive to smell. Its nutrient content will vary depending on the materials that went into it. Finished compost can be used as mulch or top dressing, dug into any problematic soil, or raked directly onto the lawn.

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