For avid gardeners, having an ample supply of rich compost is a dream. The use of compost will result in nicer plants, but producing the material can be time consuming and hard work. The more you can reduce that effort, investing the saved time in other gardening tasks, the better.
One way to start the process is by building composting bins that at least semi-automate the production of compost. A bin should be five feet wide, five feet deep, and four feet high. Start by sinking 4 by 4 posts in the ground for the corners, and then nail 2 by 4s and 1 by 4s, alternating on the sides, leaving 2″ gaps between the boards for air circulation. The 2 by 4s are rigid enough to keep the sides from bowing out, and in between each 2 by 4 you can use 1 by 4s to save a little money. The bins are three-sided, with the front open so they can be filled and emptied easily.
Fill one of the bins with grass clippings, dried leaves, and shrub clippings, trying not to put more than 6″ of each material on a layer and alternating layers of green and brown material. Keep a few bags of dry leaves around to help with the alternating.
When you root cuttings use coarse sand in the flats and put the old sand on the compost pile. It’s a good idea to take plants that do not survive and dump the entire container in the compost bin, which adds more brown material to the mix.
After the bin is full, one option is to turn the material in the bin every few weeks. Another option, however, is to pack as much material in the bin as possible, then start filling the second bin, piling the material as high as possible, even to the point where it spills out in front of the bin and covering the fresh material with mulch or potting soil.
Setting a small sprinkler on top of the pile and turning it on at a very low level will let a small spray of water run on the material. By keeping the material damp, the moisture will cause the pile to heat up, which is what makes the composting action take place.
Once the first bin is full, the second bin is used. As the material in the first bin starts to break down, it settles, which means you can keep shoveling the material piled in front of the bin, up on top of the pile. Continue to do this until all the material is either in the bin or piled on top of the heap. Then leave it alone, except for the occasional watering, which speeds up the process.
Not all of the material will rot completely, a result of not turning the pile. But the material in the center will break down more than the material on the edges, most of it breaking down quite well. Keeping a pile of potting soil on hand at all times or buying two or three yards of shredded mulch to get started, will mean always having a supply of good compost.
Left in a pile, shredded bark will eventually break down and become great compost, and some potting soil is about 80% rotted bark. Some buy fine textured and dark hardwood bark mulch, and put it in a pile to rot, keeping the pile low and flat so it does not shed the rain water away. The idea is to keep the mulch to stay as wet as possible to allow the mulch to break down quickly.
Keep a pile of rotted bark mulch near the compost bins and empty the bin containing the oldest material by piling it on top of the rotted bark mulch. The pile of rotted mulch should be wide and flat on top so the compost material is only 5 to 10 inches thick when it is spread.
The mulch pile might be 12″ wide, but only be 24 to 30 inches high. Once the compost is on top of the pile, go around the edge of the pile with a shovel, and take some of the material from the edges of the pile, tossing it up on top of the pile, covering the compost with at least 6″ of rotted bark. In this way the compost material will fully decompose.
Once the system is started, don’t use all of the material in the pile. Keep at least 2 to 3 cubic yards on hand so there will be something to mix with the compost. If necessary, buy more material and add to e pile in the late summer or fall.
Some supply companies sell a compost material that is already broken down, but try to keep at least 3 yards of old material on hand, adding another 3 yards of fresh material. In the spring you can empty one of the compost bins and add the compost to the top of the pile.
The pile of usable compost will be layers of material, some of which can be chipped off and spread on the ground. You can then mix it together with a tiller and shovel it onto a potting bench.
Having a pile of rotted compost near the compost bins will allow you to throw some rotted compost in the bin, maintaining the layered effect necessary for composting to work well.
Written by Ann Knapp of HyrdoWarehouse.com