The How To Compost Guide

James Stout provides a step-by-step guide on how to compost and how to create a working compost pile for the garden.

| November/December 1970

  • Compost heap
    How to prepare and construct a compost pile.

  • Compost heap

There seems to be almost as many ways of making compost as there are gardeners. Jeanie Darlington gave us her recipe for a compost pile in MOTHER EARTH NEWS Issue No. 3 and briefly described a method of composting in the ground in No. Four. Still, we find that some folks (new to organic gardening) continue to worry about the seemingly magical transformation of garbage into rich, black soil. So here, one more time (A HEAP Of Help For The Gardener), is a more-or-less standard set of directions for making compost. Then—just in case you start worrying about what to put in and what to put out of your compost, how long to let the pile set before turning it, whether or not to add "activators", etc.—we'll direct your attention to the other two articles on composting in this issue Creating Compost Potting Soil from Garbage and How the Compost Pile Turned into a Thriving Rock Garden. Get the idea? Dump your garbage together and stand back. It's almost impossible to fail!

How to Compost

The compost pile or "heap"—a mixture of decayed vegetable matter sometimes combined with manure—is an invaluable, yet inexpensive, device for providing the gardener with top-grade soil. Through the work of harmless bacteria, raw organic matter is converted—or "composted"—into humus. This humus is excellent plant food and improves the soil in many ways. A compost pile is built of substances such as dead leaves, lawn cuttings, left-over vegetables from the kitchen, manure, fertilizer, straw, rich topsoil and soft clippings from trees and shrubs. Grass, weeds and kitchen waste may be used in great quantity, as they decay very rapidly. Leaves, hay, sawdust, cornstalks and straw are slower and require a longer decomposition period.

Materials that resist decay or should otherwise not be used are diseased plants (which should be burned), bones, meat, grease, animal fat, grapefruit or orange skins, woody plants, twigs, branches, weeds with ripe seeds and leaves from the oak, beech or pine tree.

The restrictions upon leaves and fruit skins are not mandatory to anyone but the serious gardener. These materials will not ruin the compost pile but may lower its value somewhat. They also require a longer period of time for total decay.

Many people feel that it's easier and safer to compost leaves than to burn them. The trade of fire, smoke and worthless ashes for valuable humus certainly makes good ecological sense. Leaves decompose at a slower rate than other compost, however, and can retard the natural processing of a mixed heap. The solution is to segregate them into a separate pile where—at the end of two years—they'll yield excellent leaf mold.

Vegetable cuttings from the kitchen are one of the easiest substances to compost. Cooked or uncooked, they contribute greatly to the process.

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