Grit Blogs > Life at Cobble Hill Farm

Compost 101

Garden plot, after.

I know going into winter the last thing you may be thinking about is compost, however, as you begin ordering seeds for the next season if you don't already compost you should consider doing so. You can create beautiful, rich soil right in your own backyard with little effort. Anyone can start a compost pile, regardless of the size of your property. I love the fact that I can recycle our table scraps, although the chickens get the first pick.

Garden plot, before.

When we first purchased our 146 year old farmhouse it was in the month of June. The growing season was already well underway. I walked out to the plot the previous owner had obviously used for a garden. All I could smell was chicken poop. He also had chickens and I believe he simply added the manure to the dirt. My mom helped me with a few plantings, but not surprisingly they didn't do well at all.

By year two the dirt and manure had matured. I tilled it to improve the quality. Year three I added above ground planting boxes and purchased compost from a local farm to fill them. This was much better. I also decided to add my own compost bins enabling me to continue to top layer my beds.

Garden plot, with purchased compost ready to go into raised beds.

While shopping at a local home improvement store we came across a great sale on their plastic compost bins and purchased two at my husband's urging (probably so he could cross an item off his "honey do" list without technically making it – a win-win for both of us).

I started out thinking that I would follow the layer system for compost. I quickly forgot about the layer system in the busy-ness of everyday life and just kept adding whatever I had on hand to the piles. Here's what I can tell you from my first year of compost: it will break down eventually, however it will break down much quicker if you layer properly. I had to wait just over a year to use that first year's beautiful soil and I still had to pick out items that hadn't yet composted.

First, you'll want to decide on a compost bin. Will it be an open or a closed-bin system? With a closed-bin (the system we have) you can keep the rodents out, however, if you layer properly this shouldn't be a large problem. I arrived home one day to see my neighbors enormous dog rooting around mine, attempting to get in. After shooing him away I decided that I need to add my brown layer immediately after adding any table scraps. Once I started doing that he never visited me, at least for that purpose, again.

Next, will you build it or buy it? If you find a great sale, as we did, it's worth the purchase. Otherwise, there are a number of materials you can use to build one – fencing, wood, bales of straw, etc. You could even use trash cans after punching holes in the sides and bottom for aeration and worms. Just remember to steer clear of pressure treated, especially the older pressure treated wood, so you aren't adding chemicals to your soil.

We decided on 2 bins, although many people go with 3. I add to one bin, layering and turning, and when that bin is fairly full I begin adding to the second. Also, if I have a surplus of one layer (green or brown) I can put it in the second bin so it doesn't go to waste. Once you've got your layering system down you'll turn from time-to-time, add a little water, a little soil here and there and before you know it you'll have wonderful, rich soil.

There are 2 types of layers: "green" and "brown".

  • The "green" layer consists of things such as: coffee grounds, tea leaves, fruit and vegetable waste, seaweed, recent "live" things such as weeds, green leaves, grass, flowers and plants. Careful not to add diseased plants. I found it necessary to purchase a countertop compost bucket (photo below). You can make one out of just about anything or purchase one with a filter to keep it from smelling up the kitchen. I empty mine every 3 to 5 days. Additionally, if I have food waste and my compost bins are full I keep a gallon size freezer bag in the freezer to add to. Once I'm ready to add "greens" again I just dump them in. Freezing is also beneficial at starting the process of breaking the items down. It's kind of like a head start.

Crock for composting kitchen scraps

  • The "brown" layer consists of things such as: straw, hay, shredded paper, wood chips, sawdust, wood ash, fall leaves and any dry or dead plant materials. This layer helps give the compost pile aeration, speeding up the decomposition. I add the wood chips from the chicken coop which have the manure mixed in for an activator. Bone meal can be used for activation if manure is not available to you.

Try to cut all materials down prior to adding. This will help speed up the process. I cut food waste up, crush my egg shells, etc.

Troubleshooting: If your compost pile is smelly or has been over watered, add browns for aeration. If it's not heating up at all it may be too dry. If you have materials that just won't break down you may need to add water and/or nitrogen-rich materials.

With a little trial and error you'll have beautiful soil to use in your beds. Happy composting!

nebraska dave
12/1/2010 8:03:28 PM

Staci, I’m afraid that I am a lazy composter. I just throw all the yard waste into a pile in the backyard by the back fence. Over the course of the summer and fall a quite large pile accumulates. After the fall yard cleanup, I fork all the partially composted material into the raised garden beds and let it continue to break down over the winter. In the spring I cover the raised beds with fully composted yard waste sold by the city to the public. Yes I expect there could be a few chemicals in the material used for the composting but after the compost is finished I don’t think there are many left in the finished product. After covering the beds with compost, I plant the beds and cover them with straw. Then I fill up my gravity feed automatic watering system and spend a few minutes a day just pulling a stray weed here and there and enjoy being in the garden until harvesting begins. The main tank of the watering system has to be filled every two weeks. Have a great composting day.