Successfully growing a beautiful and fruitful vegetable garden is the dream of all gardeners. After all nothing is better than reaping great rewards for all that work and careful attention that goes into a garden. One overlooked ingredient that can make all the difference in your garden’s output is the use of organic compost.
Most gardens don’t automatically have great soil. Whether you are dealing with hard and compact clay-like soil or sandy loose soil, compost straight from your backyard compost bin is what you add to improve the soil texture, water-holding ability and nutrients to the ground. Over time your dirt will become a loamy, fluffy brown soil, the ideal growing ground for happy plants.
What is Compost?
Compost can be made in various compost bins to decompose organic material — a major source for a long-lasting dose of nutrients in your garden. These decomposed materials create a nutrient rich soil that can be added to your garden to keep the dirt loose and full of food for your plants.
Compost literally energizes your soil from the microscopic bacteria and fungi, to earthworms and other life forms. Research has shown that compost can even help some plants avoid disease and even improve their flavor and nutrition! There is a reason compost is commonly referred to as “Black Gold” by experienced gardeners.
Compost also shouldn’t be confused with fertilizers — compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants. By feeding the soil and filling it with nutrients the compost benefits the soil and plants over the long run, helping your garden grow and improving the soil for years to come.
Fertilizer is generally meant to feed a fast-growing plant. The fertilizer is recommended in amounts to feed the plant alone and is quickly used up and doesn’t change the nature of the soil.
Soil that is regularly amended with compost requires less fertilizer as the compost does all the work.
What are the benefits of Compost?
Like was mentioned earlier, the first and biggest benefit of using compost is to amend your soil, creating the ideal environment for healthy plants. Compost also provides a balanced source of nutrients for the garden. Soil cannot stay rich and productive without replacing the nutrients that are consumed by the plants each growing season.
Organic compost provides nutrients as plants need them, providing a long-term food source that doesn’t require a calendar of systems or reminders like a fertilizer that needs regular application to be beneficial. Remember, compost is made up of decayed material — material that is full of all types of microorganisms that work wonders in your soil.
Compost also encourages earthworms to abound allowing them to tunnel through the soil, creating passageways for water and air to get to the plants roots. Finally, compost helps moderate the pH in your soil so you can worry less about the science of your soil and trust that the compost will do the work to create the optimal growing environment.
Where can I get compost?
Compost can be found at any garden store, sold by the bag, but the best source is free and is homemade. Compost is made of fruit and vegetable peels and cut-offs from your kitchen, old plants from the garden at the end of the season and leaf and grass clippings from your yard.
While bagged compost can give you a great head start, creating a compost pile or purchasing a compost bin will give your garden, fresh, one-of-a-kind batches of compost all season long.
How to make compost
To create your own “black gold” you’ll need a compost bin (preferably with a lid) and about 3 square feet of outdoor space. You can buy or make your own bin (more on that below). To create the decomposed, nutrient rich soil that is compost, you’ll want to add differing amounts of “green” waste and “brown” waste to your compost bin, generally the ratio is 3 parts brown waste for every 1 part green waste.
Green waste is made up of moist scraps like fruits and veggies and fresh grass clippings. Brown waste comes from dry material like wood shavings, dried leaves and even cardboard and newspapers. The brown material is full of carbon and the green material supplies nitrogen.
Your compost bins also needs oxygen (air holes) and moisture (add water). Without oxygen the pile will simply rot and the moisture helps break everything down. It’s recommended to turn or mix your compost every week to help speed up the decomposing process and to keep it moist like a damp sponge (but not soaked!).
What to compost:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Coffee grounds and filters and tea bags
- Nut shells
- Shredded newspaper, paper and cardboard
- Yard trimmings including grass*, leaves, branches, and twigs
- Dead houseplants
- Hay and straw
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ashes
What not to compost:
- Certain types of tree leaves and twigs such as black walnut, as it releases substances that may be harmful to plants
- Coal or coal ash, as they might contain substances that are harmful to plants
- Dairy products, eggs, fats and oils, meat and fish bones and scraps (it will smell and attract flies and mice!)
- Diseased or insect-infested plants, as the disease or insects may survive and be passed along to other plants (carefully clear those plants and throw them away at the end of the season)
- Pet waste (including dog and cat feces and used cat litter)
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides; as the pesticides might kill composting organisms
Compost bins vs. Compost piles
Here at Homegrown Foods HQ we are big fans of compost bins. A high quality compost bin keeps out any unwanted animals, helps speed up the process and is more aesthetically pleasing in the garden. While you can create a compost heap in your yard, we feel the cost and time benefits of building or purchasing a bin are worth it for the reasons mentioned above.
Pros and Cons of building your own compost bins
Do-it-yourself-ers can build a compost bin using materials such as an old garbage can, wood pallets or even chicken wire. Check out this site for some plans for DIY compost bins.
Pros: Low cost, you can often make these from scrap materials.
Cons: These can be harder to turn depending on the style you make. Cumbersome or impossible to move around. Can be more challenging to keep out pests like mice.
Pros and Cons of buying compost bins
Pros: The Soil Machine Pro has a built in handle for turning your compost, helping to speed up the decomposing time. The bin is made of dark plastic, soaking up the heat and helping your materials to break down faster. It looks nice in the yard.
All three of the compost bins we offer are round and can be lifted off their base so when it’s time to add the compost you can easily roll the bin to the spot of the yard where it’s needed. Our top-of-the-line models also capture rain water in the bottom, creating a mix of nutrient rich liquid from the bin + nitrogen rich rainwater, a mixture called Compost Tea which can be added like liquid fertilizer to give your plants an extra boost. Our products are also made in the USA!
Cons: One time cost of purchasing the bin.
Do I need a compost Spreader?
Compost spreaders are used for covering large spaces such as a lawn. For use in the backyard garden a simple shovel will do the trick to spread and turn in the compost. You can also simply layer your top 2-3 inches of dirt with your compost straight from the bin.
Small Space? How to compost in an apartment
We have a compact composter that works great for apartment dwellers who want to reduce their waste and create great soil for their patio container garden. At just 2 ½ feet wide, the Compost Wizard Jr can turn up to 7 cubic feet of compost! Composting is great for the environment and great for your plants, creating bigger and higher yielding plants than a traditional potting soil would grow.
Not sure how much compost is too much? The general rule of thumb is that you can’t really add too much compost. The green and brown waste have been broken down to the point where you can’t burn or harm a plant by adding it to your garden (unlike fresh green manures or store bought fertilizers). If you are just starting out, adding a 2-3 inch layer of compost each season is recommended but you can also check out this compost calculator to see just how much compost you’ll need for your space.
As you can see composting is great for the environment, cuts down on waste in your home and creates the optimal food and soil enhancer for your garden. You’ll be amazed at how your plants grow bigger, more fruitful and are less prone to disease as you apply a thick layer of homemade compost straight from your compost bin into the garden!