Black gold. That is what gardeners call the dark, rich stuff that comes out of the compost bin once it has done its job. Partners who share a garden (and compost bin) have been known to do battle over who lays claim to this rich earth.
Composting has been going on for eons in some form or another but still the majority of us throw our scraps into the green bins for curb side pick up. With a little extra work you can make those scraps into your own black gold.
Composting simply means taking scrap organic waste and mixing in moisture, air, some worms, a few microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi (good ones) and cooking it all together with the help of the sun’s heat. Whether it is contained in a wooden bin, wire cage, black plastic composters, one of those fancy rotating drums or just a pile in the corner, the method is basically the same.
Choose the sunniest area in your yard, preferably not in the middle of the boxwood maze or next to the bench in the rose garden, but remember that convenience plays a big part. If it’s way out in the back forty you’ll probably quickly get tired of the mile-long hike with your can of carrot peelings. You also need enough room to work a shovel and pitchfork around without taking out an arbor or window.
To start you’ll need to choose a bin style. Popular and cheap are the black plastic ones. While they’re okay, and I admit to owning some in the past, they really aren’t big enough to be able to turn the pile efficiently but in a pinch they’ll do the trick, especially if you’re short of space. You can also build bins out of cement blocks, wooden pallets (watch out for nails), wire mesh, or even just by making a pile on the ground.
My favourite, though, after witnessing my parents’ bins in action, is two 3ftx3ft bins, side by side, made out of detachable wooden slats. The slats make it easier to get the compost out when it’s time to apply it to the garden. There shouldn’t be a bottom because you want the earthworms to migrate up from the ground below to help with the decomposition process.
Now that you’ve found the spot and picked the containment unit you can start composting! The trick is to have a mix of kitchen scraps, garden debris and soil plus a little water to make composting go faster.
Have a container handy in the kitchen and throw in any vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, tea bags and coffee grounds. Food scraps should be naked, meaning no butter, sauces or dressings. Save any meat, fats or oils and dairy products for the curb side green bin otherwise you may attract rats and racoons.
For layering between kitchen waste use leaves, grass clippings (no pesticides), garden prunings, old potting soil and shredded paper. The smaller the pieces the faster they break down. I cut the twiggy branches into 2-3 inch pieces and crumble or shred any bigger leaves. Don’t worry about equal measures of scraps versus garden waste. Too many rules will deter you from composting and, to be honest, I’ve always just thrown in whatever and still had great compost.
Once you have established a good amount of layers turn the pile over a few times with a pitchfork to allow air circulation. This also gives you a chance to see if you should add a bit of water. The pile should be moist but not sopping wet. Turn the pile over every few layers.
Depending on the location of your bin and the weather, it may take three months to a year to turn your waste into that glorious humus. When your result is dark, crumbly, rich-looking soil with a clean, earthy smell, your compost is ready!
Use a wire-mesh screen (available at the garden centre or make your own) to sift out any bigger particles that didn’t decompose enough, throwing them back into the bin to start the next cycle. Add the compost to your garden by either spreading it as a mulch or mixing it in your vegetable garden, annual containers, or anywhere else you need a top up.
Compost increases the soil’s organic matter and moisture-holding capacity and your plants will love it! To top it all off, composting reduces landfill waste and gives you soil with little effort.