Backyard Composter Project

Overview

A compost pile in the back yard is an essential part of creating a successful garden. Compost is not, by itself, a fertilizer, although it does provide plants with a lot of nutritional advantages. What compost does is to hold moisture and plant nutrients and make them available to your plants when they need them. It also improves soil texture, often called "tilth," which is how expert gardeners describe soil that looks, smells and feels healthy.

Deciding on the Location

Decide where you want to put your backyard compost pile. It needs to be easy and convenient to get to---if it's at the far end of your yard, and it is raining or snowing, you'll wish it was closer to your house. The pile will work better if it is on fairly level ground and in at least partial shade. It's hard to stop a pile from slipping and sliding if it is on a slope, and because you don't want it to dry out, it's better if it isn't in full sun all day.

What Can Be Composted?

Compost "happens" when you combine two kinds of vegetable matter: that with carbon (brown) and that with nitrogen (green). Things like dead leaves, straw and sawdust are great sources of carbon. Fresh vegetable waste, weeds without seeds, grass clippings and animal manures all have lots of nitrogen. The best animal manures for compost are horse, cow, goat, rabbit and chicken. Other things that can be composted include eggshells, coffee grounds and teabags.

What Should Not Be Composted?

To prevent your compost pile does from stinking or attracting animals, do not add fish, meat or dairy products to the pile. And because they may contain harmful pathogens, do not compost dog or cat waste.

Compost Bins

A bin makes it easier to keep everything tidy and together, but it's not necessary. If you want a bin, there are lots of different designs on the market, or you can use something as simple as 12 feet of sturdy wire fencing, about 3 or 4 feet high. Form it into a circle, join the ends, and you have a basic compost bin.

Making the Compost Pile

Make the compost pile with layers of material, one on top of the other. You need about four parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen. Put down a thick layer of dead leaves, then a thin layer of green stuff or manure, then another thick layer of leaves or straw. Sprinkle each layer with water. You want the pile to be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Ideally, build it up until it's about 3 or 4 feet high.

Is It Ready Yet?

As all the microbes and bacteria start to do their thing, the pile will heat up for a day or so. It should get as hot as 140 or 150 degrees F. When it cools down, get in there with a garden fork and mix everything together. Put what's on the outside on the inside, and what's on top onto the bottom. It'll heat up again. After two or three heat cycles, let the pile sit for a month or two. Stir it around from time to time. Within two or three months you will have compost, ready to be added to your garden. You have turned waste into something useful.

Keywords: compost, compost bin, carbon, nitrogen

About this Author

Peter Garnham has been a garden writer since 1989. Garnham is a Master Gardener and a Contributing Editor for "Horticulture" magazine. He speaks at conferences on vegetable, herb, and fruit growing, soil science, grafting, propagation, seeds, and composting. Garnham runs a 42-acre community farm on Long Island, NY.