It often seems that instructions for making your own compost involve having a lot of space for the project. But what if you live in a condo or on a city lot with little space in which to garden?
Fear not! If you just have room for a raised bed or two, or garden only in containers, you, too, can make your own compost. Here's how:
First, we need to understand that composting is the process by which plants and the fruit and vegetables they produce decompose into a product that plants need. This work is done by soil microorganisms that digest the plant material. All we, as gardeners, need to do is provide the microorganisms with food and the right conditions in which to work.
One thing to keep in mind is that smaller pieces of discarded plants will decompose faster. Also, there needs to be a general ratio of two-thirds brown material (carbon) to one-third nitrogen (green) material. Too much carbon will slow down the process, and too much nitrogen will make it stink. The compost should smell earthy, not unpleasant.
Brown materials include dry leaves, pine needles, sawdust, dry cornstalks, cobs, straw and shredded paper. In the fall, you might want to collect bags of dry leaves to be used later. Green materials include kitchen scraps, trimmings from fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds, grass clippings on which no weed killers have been used, trimmings from your vegetable and flower beds, and weeds without seeds. Do not use any dairy, meat, bones, pet manure or weeds with seeds on them.
I'll emphasize again that the pieces of material you use should be small. Chop, cut or tear them as needed. Over the summer, keep these items in a plastic garbage can, or even 5-gallon buckets with lids (to prevent loss of moisture). Add new materials in thin layers, keeping in mind the ratio mentioned above. Every once in a while, sprinkle your collection with a scoop of garden soil (not bagged potting mix; it is sterile) to help keep the microbe activity going.
You do not need any special "compost starter."
Add enough water so that the mixture feels like a damp sponge. If your compost smells bad, besides adding more carbon, stir it or move it from one container to another to incorporate more air. Never let the compost dry out, however.
If you have raised beds, here is how you can use your compost. After a frost, and as winter rains begin, your beds should be free of old plant material. Using a rake or shovel, and working in sections, move the top few inches of soil toward the end of the bed. Add some of the material you have been composting. If you have access to llama or rabbit manure, you could toss in a few shovels full along with the compost. Now cover it all up with the soil you moved aside and go to the next section of the bed. When finished, you will have buried all of your compost material under a few inches of soil.
Next, cover the raised bed with black plastic. This will keep the beds from getting too wet and will also keep the nitrogen being produced from escaping into the air. Hold down the edges of the plastic with a few bricks.
This is a method of "cold composting." It is not speedy or hot, but the small particles you have kept in your container will decompose sufficiently over the winter to greatly enrich your soil in the spring. The many friends and neighbors who have enjoyed my bumper crop of cucumbers this year will attest to that!
Reach Carol Oneal at email@example.com.