Compost is one of the best sources of organic materials for the garden. It helps improve the fertility and texture of the soil. Mixing compost into the top 8 inches of the garden will improve your soil. Compost is a blend of recycled garden, yard and household wastes that breaks down into dark, crumbly organic material. Compost acts as a free source of soil fertilizer. Compost is built in layers that utilize moisture and oxygen to produce heat that speeds up the natural decomposition process.
The best compost piles are built in layers of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials. Equal amounts of these materials are used with a sprinkle of water. The layers should be kept moist but not soggy. Build piles at least 3 feet in height in order to create enough heat. Turn the compost pile if it cools off. Invert one forkful of material at a time. The more frequently you turn your compost pile, the quicker it breaks down. This could be two to six weeks of active turning before the compost is ready, or six to 12 months if the pile is never turned.
Green types of ingredients for a compost pile are high-nitrogen materials. This includes vegetable scraps, grass clippings, fallen leaves, soft plant trimmings, weeds, fruit peels, corn husks, carrot tops, eggshells, seaweed, discarded forced bulbs and dead annuals. Farm animal manure like chicken, rabbit, cow and horse can be added to the green layers. Spent crops, like bolted lettuce or any plant that is no longer producing like pole bean plants after the last harvest, can be added as well.
Brown types of ingredients are high in carbon. This is needed to balance out the nitrogen materials and create heat. Brown materials include woody materials like leaves and finely shredded bark. It is also farm animal bedding like straw. Newspaper and coffee grounds are considered brown materials as well.
Some scrap items need to be used with caution. Fish and shellfish scraps are high in nitrogen but tend to attract unwanted visitors to the compost pile. If these items are used, bury them near the middle of the pile where the scavengers will not smell them. Annual weeds that have seed heads on them will spread weed seeds throughout your pile. Autumn leaves, twigs and wood chips take longer to breakdown than other materials. If these are being composted, either shred them or put them in their own compost pile.
There are some items that should be avoided. Do not use fat, bones or meat scraps in your pile since they attract scavengers. Avoid using human, dog and cat feces since they carry disease organisms. Do not use infested or diseased plant materials. They should be buried or burned to destroy the virus-infected material. Colored newspaper, books and magazines may contain toxic inks. Avoid using plastic materials. They do not decompose. Do not add any grass clippings that have been treated with weed killers. Any refuse from black walnut, eucalyptus and cedar trees will inhibit the growth of garden plants. Plants part from poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac should not be used. Do not use coal and charcoal ashes since they contain toxic residues.
Break any large pieces of scraps down into small pieces to speed up the composting process. Add more high-nitrogen items if the pile will not heat up. Use more high-carbon materials if your compost pile is starting to smell offensive. Always turn your compost pile if a problem should occur. This adds oxygen to the center of your pile and causes it to heat up.