compost pile(iStock)

Composting is a relatively simple and inexpensive way to turn your kitchen scraps and yard cuttings into beneficial mulch. For very little time, effort, and money, you can produce nutrient-packed compost that benefits your garden, reduces the volume of garbage sent to landfills, and is said to be a much better alternative to chemical fertilizers. Compost is an all-natural way to aerate and improve your soil, increase the soil, water retention, and stimulate the root development of your plants.

What makes compost?
Compost consists of any organic plant material that decomposes. Composting mirrors the process that takes place in natural settings such as forests, where plants die, settle to the forest floor, decompose, and are dismantled by micro-organisms. When the various organisms and micro-organisms finish their process of breaking down the organic plant materials, what's left is the dark, rich, and loamy compost that plants love.

Household food scraps such as corncobs, citrus rinds, coffee grinds, coffee filters, eggshells, dryer lint, vegetable peels, grass cuttings, hay, and manure all make great compost ingredients. If you use manure in your compost, choose the droppings from vegetarian animals such as goats, horses, cows, ducks, sheep, and pigs. Avoid using milk and fish products, fats, grease, and dog and cat droppings; these items often contain pathogens, slow or destroy the decomposition process, and attract vermin to your compost pile.

Balance your compost ingredients
In composting, the goal is to create an environment in which the natural decomposition of organic materials speeds up through the use of green materials, brown materials, moisture, and air. Successful composting strikes a balance between materials that produce nitrogen and others that produce carbon.

  • Fresh green materials like leaves, grass clippings, and pine needles produce nitrogen.
  • Brown materials like coffee grounds, dead leaves, twigs, corncobs, and cardboard produce carbon.

A mixture of brown and green materials yields the best results.

Composting methods
The composing process can be as simple and cost free as establishing a pile in your yard, away from your house, or more costly and elaborate as buying a specially made composting bin or constructing a wood-and-wire structure. Whichever method you choose, be sure the site is level and has good drainage and airflow.

  • Composting on the ground. If you build your compost pile on the ground, be certain to place it over the soil, not on cement. This way, the organisms in the soil can travel back and forth between the soil and the compost heap. Make your compost pile at least 3×3×3 feet.
  • Composting in a bin. Great low-cost composting bins are available at many gardening stores or you can also make your own bin. A little research will help you figure out which option is your best bet.

Composting tips

  • Keep it warm. For the fastest rate of decomposition, try to keep the temperature within the compost heap between 104° and 160°F. You can purchase an inexpensive compost thermometer to test the heat in the pile or you can monitor the heat by feeling it with your hand. If it's warm to the touch, the pile is probably doing well. If the pile feels cool or the same temperature as the air outside, it likely needs more heat. To increase the heat in the pile, add more green materials, such as grass clippings, that will produce more nitrogen.
  • Choose a good location. Heat helps the micro-organisms work faster, makes the materials decompose quicker, and kills weeds within the pile as well as plant diseases living on the materials. If you live in a cooler climate, locate your compost bin in a sunny spot so it can trap solar heat. But if you live in a warm climate, pick a semi-shady spot for your compost pile so the material doesn't dry out too quickly.
  • Make sure it stays moist. Moisture aids the composting process by helping to break down the materials. Try to keep the materials in your compost pile as damp as a wet cloth that has been wrung out. Too much moisture, however, can cause an inordinate amount of odour as the materials break down and can ultimately slow the decomposition process because the water will replace the air in the mixture.
  • Turn to help with aeration. Hand-turning your compost pile daily with a pitchfork or garden fork ensures that enough air is circulating within the pile and lets you check the moisture level of the pile. For example, moving the materials from the edges into the centre gives you an even decomposition rate. Also keep in mind that as materials decompose they shrink. Make sure to add new materials to the pile throughout the process and mix them into the pile.

Results
Depending on how you maintain your compost pile, several weeks or months later you will have a dark, earthy, and crumbly compost mixture. Your compost will provide your plants with lots of nitrogen and vitamins, and it will also be an excellent soil conditioner. Spread the compost around the base of your plants in a 1-inch-thick swath and watch your plants thrive.