Composting: Gardening expert shares ‘biggest mistake’ to avoid when making compost

Compost is an amazing organic powerhouse of nutrients. These nutrients help to keep soil loose, workable, and most importantly, completely energized. It can be used absolutely everywhere to enrich soil and power garden plants. According to gardening enthusiasts, Jim and Mary Competti at Old World Garden Farms, there are six essential ways to get the most out of your compost. They have also shared an array of benefits compost can have on gardens.

They said: “Not only does it help to build incredible soil strength and structure, it also acts as the perfect slow-release fertiliser. Compost gently releases a low dose of nutrients to a plant’s root system all season long. As it does, it gives the perfect balance of nutrients for strong, steady growth, and higher productivity.

“In addition to using compost in the soil, we also use it on top of the soil surface around plants. Once a plant goes in the ground, we add a two inch thick layer of mulch as a ‘mulching ring’ around the base of every single plant.

“The mulching ring first insulates the soil from temperature swings. It also protects plants by suppressing weed growth, all the while holding valuable moisture in the roots below.

“But perhaps best of all, the compost ring also acts as a slow release fertilizer and every time we water or it rains, it leaches powerful nutrients to the roots below. Talk about a win-win for the plants.”

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How to make great compost for a great garden

1. Get the right mix of materials

The experts said: “To get the best possible results from a compost pile, it takes a proper balance of brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) materials. It can all sound intimidating, but it’s actually very simple.”

Brown materials consist of leaves, straw, wood shavings, dead grass, small twigs, etc. Greens on the other hand are materials like vegetable peels, coffee grounds, green grass and plant clippings.

Greens can also be animal by-products such as chicken and rabbit manure. In fact, according to the garden pros they are one “hot fuel” that gets a pile really cooking.

They continued: “The perfect ratio of browns to greens to always follow for a great compost pile is for every three to four parts of brown material, add in one part green. For instance, if you add in four buckets of shredded leaves, then a bucket of vegetable peels or fresh green grass needs to go in at some point to balance it out.

“Don’t worry about being exact or putting materials in at the same time. Add materials as you get them. Just try to stay as close to the ratios as you can over time to make the pile work at maximum efficiency.”

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2. Build the right size pile

Jim and Mary Competti warned: “One of the biggest mistakes when composting is to create a pile that is too small to work efficiently, or too big to manage.

“If a pile is too small, the materials never ‘heat up’ enough to decompose quickly. But if it gets too big, it can become difficult to turn and mix. And as you will see later in the article, turning and mixing can be a big part of creating a successful pile.”

So what is the best size? The experts said: “For best results, a pile or compost bin between 3′ x 3′ x 3′ high, to 5′ x 5′ x 3′ high works best. It allows for a pile big enough to have thermal heat, but not so big that it’s hard to turn.”

There are some good options available for purchase, but gardeners can create a great looking compost bin or bins right at home with ordinary timber.

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3. Chop the ingredients

The gardening pros said: “One of the biggest and most underrated keys to a fast-working compost pile is to chop the ingredients before tossing them in. As a rule, the smaller the item going in, the quicker it decomposes. The more finely a material is cut up, the more surface area it has exposed to break down. As the surface area comes into contact with bacteria and organisms at a higher rate, it breaks down more quickly.”

To do this, gardeners don’t need a fancy shredder to cop up the compost ingredients. According to Jim and Mary gardeners can use push or riding mowers to easily shred ingredients. Also when saving those kitchen scraps, just be sure to give them a few more chops before tossing them into the pile.

4. Keep turning the pile

Just as chopping ingredients up will speed up decomposition, so will turning the pile often. Like all living creatures, the organisms that help to break down a compost pile need oxygen. The experts said: “Turning your pile frequently (with a spade or pitchfork) helps to add oxygen to the center core where it is needed most. A compost pile’s hottest area will always be in the center, and because of that, it burns through oxygen quickly.

“But by turning and mixing your pile at least once or twice a week, you resupply oxygen to the core. In addition, the brown and green materials become mixed more thoroughly as well, helping to speed decomposition even faster.”

Turning a pile at least a few times a week will speed up the decomposition process greatly. But ideally, if gardeners can turn their compost pile once a day, they will achieve “maximum efficiency”.

5. Keep compost moist

In addition to oxygen, compost needs water to keep it cooking as well. Jim and Mary explained: “This is why having moisture present in your pile is a must. The moisture and oxygen work together to create the hot temperatures needed to break it all down quickly.

“Keep your pile moist by adding water if it starts to dry out. A good compost pile should feel like a well-wrung, slightly damp sponge. It not only helps keep moisture and heat in, but can keep soaking rains from deluging it. As much as a dry pile can slow decomposition, a water-logged pile can stop it in its tracks too. You can cover it with a tarp or roof, or make a swinging lid if needed.”

6. What not to put in compost piles

Finally, it is also “extremely important” to know what not to put in the pile, according to the pros. They said: “Meat is an absolute no-no. It attracts rats, mice, raccoons and other unwanted animals. Even worse, it can lead to foul smelling piles that are anything but pleasing. In addition, always refrain from using dog or cat manure as it can contaminate your pile, as well as the plants and vegetables you use the compost on.”