March 11, 2013 at 4:08 PM ET
Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your garden is feed it with nutrient-rich compost. This mix of decaying vegetable matter, grass clippings, and leaves may not be glamorous, but it improves soil structure and provides the nutrients your plants need to thrive. And it’s easy to create your own compost in your backyard or patio, at little or no cost. But don’t delay: it takes about a year for compost to be ready to spread on your vegetable patch. Ready to start? Here are a few simple steps to composting at home:
Choose Your Container
Garden centers sell a variety of containers for making compost. You can buy a sealed composting bin that has a little door in it for adding organic matter—or a composting barrel on a stand that allows you to tumble it. Traditionalist might want to create a conventional compost heap. To do that, build a four-sided container from scrap timber that fits comfortably in a corner of your yard, says Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia, which grows more than 2,300 varieties and 22 million plants annually. It’s best to position your heap away from the house and any outdoor areas where people gather, as compost can get a little stinky when it’s not sealed in a container.
If you an organic garden (or close to it), make sure everything you put into your compost is organic, notes Robert McLaughlin, CEO of Organic Bouquet in Maitland, Florida. “Don’t put chemically-treated produce in there or you’ll just be putting in chemicals.” Most of your compost should be vegetables and fruit, but paper, newspapers, small sticks, grass clippings and straw make excellent additions. “I’d venture to say the amount of chemicals in newspapers is so minor it won’t make a big difference,” reveals Staddon. If you find yourself short on organic matter, knock on your neighbors’ door and ask for their extra grass clippings or vegetable refuse. “You could be doing them a favor,” says Staddon. If you or your neighbors own horses, chickens, or goats, you can also add nutrient-packed manure.
Hit the Right Ratio
It’s important to keep a healthy ratio of carbon-rich matter and nitrogen-rich matter in your compost heap, says Nell Foster, horticulturist, gardening blogger and owner of Joy Us in Santa Barbara, California, which creates eco-conscious garden accessories. The fastest way to produce fertile, aromatic compost is to maintain a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of approximately 25 to 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. If the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too low (excess nitrogen), you’ll end up with a smelly pile.
Good sources of carbon include (finely shredded) cardboard, corn stalks, straw, fruit, leaves, peanut shells, sawdust, pine needles and ashes. Sources higher in nitrogen are vegetables scraps, coffee grounds, clover, garden waste, grass clippings, manure, seaweed and hay. “Do a little research on composting before you start throwing things in,” says Foster. Also, don’t throw in things that have gone to seed or they’ll take root in your compost. For example, toss in a rotting jack-o’-lantern and you’re likely to find a plethora of pumpkins suddenly sprouting out of your compost!
It’s critical to turn your compost regularly with a garden fork. This aerates the soil, which speeds up bacterial activity. You can tell when compost is ready to use by how it looks; it should be broken down to a point where it has the appearance of rich, healthy soil.
Keep it Warm
Compost breaks down faster in warm conditions, so try to keep your bin or heap insulated from the cold. (That’s why so many bins are black—the color attracts the most sun. If you have a heap instead of a container, cover it with a black tarp for the same effect.) The ideal temperature for fast decomposition is between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. But don’t worry too much—the microbes in compost generate their own heat and some decomposition will continue to happen as long as your compost heap remains above freezing.
Collect the Run-off
If your compost bin allows rainwater to flow through it and out the bottom, collect the drainage, says McLaughlin. This liquid is amazing fertilizing material—simply pour it around the plants in your garden.
Put it to Work
When your compost is ready, begin adding it into your garden. After plants have taken root and are showing growth (around 10-12 inches), add about an inch of compost on top of the soil around the plants and blend it in, advises McLaughlin.
Want More Info?
If you want extra help with your composting, the Sierra Club has a how-to video on its website. Local garden fairs also often have composting workshops, too.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.