Make Your Own Compost at Home

by Sue Hartman of Garden Hotline and Tilth Alliance

Compost builds healthy soil by providing valuable nutrients and organic matter. But did you know that adding compost to your garden can save you money, as well? Plants grown in healthy soil often need less water, fertilizer, or pesticides to thrive, resulting in a plumper wallet and happier plants!

Food Waste
It is easy to make your own “black gold” at home. Compost food scraps in a worm bin, in a food digester, or directly in the ground. Buy a worm bin or build your own at home and just add food, bedding, and composting worms. Purchase red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) from a reputable worm vendor or get a handful from a friend with an established worm bin. The larger the population grows, the more food and bedding you will add and the more worm castings you will have for your garden. Worm bins need to be drained periodically so that the worms don’t drown. Make worm tea by draining this liquid into a bucket, diluting it with water and giving your vegetables a nutrient boost!

A food digester is similar to a worm bin, but easier to manage. Turn a galvanized metal garbage can into a food digester by drilling holes in the bottom half of the can, including the bottom, and “plant” it in the ground so that none of the holes are exposed. Put a secure lid on it and start adding your food scraps. Worms and other critters will find the goodies and eventually turn them into compost. It’s a slower process than a worm bin, but you will not need to purchase worms. Be sure to secure the lid to the sides of the can as an added protection from unwanted critters. Place it at the drip line of your fruit trees for a perpetual source of nutrients and good soil microorganisms.

Burial or trenching is another easy way to compost food scraps. Dig a hole or trench at least 12 inches deep. Spread out the food in the hole and cover it with soil. Wait at least a couple weeks before planting to give the food time to decompose. You cannot harvest the compost like you can from a food digester or worm bin, but it is an easy way to enrich an existing garden bed or start a new one.

Yard Waste
Yard waste can be composted too, though some methods require more time and work than others. Here are some methods you can use to speed up the decomposition process if you are trying to decide which yard waste system is best for you:

– A hot pile system makes high quality compost, fast – about one to two months. In this process, it is required to monitor temperature, moisture and air circulation on a regular basis, as well as needing to be mixed every few days. The pile must maintain a temperature of 130-150° F, which effectively kills pathogens in manure and weed seeds while speeding up the decomposition process. Keeping multiple bins allows one to actively compost while the others “cure.”

– A cold pile system allows yard waste to sit in a pile and decompose on its own, but can take six months to a year, depending on the size and type of ingredients. Be sure to cut woody stems and branches into three inch or smaller pieces. Be mindful in the use and placement of this compost because this process doesn’t account for pathogens or weed seeds still present.

– Create a pile and add your yard waste progressively. Mix carbon-heavy (“brown”) and nitrogen-heavy (“green”) inputs to make a pile less smelly and break down more efficiently. For example, grass
clippings can become smelly when piled alone, but will make better compost and be less smelly when mixed with leaves.

What NOT to add to your home waste compost:

Meat, fish, poultry, bones, or dairy: If you have municipal food and yard waste composting, you can put them in your collection bin. If not, they need to go in the garbage.

Fruits and vegetables: Rotting produce will attract rodents. Put them in a worm bin, food digester, or bury them instead.

Pet waste: Bag it in plastic and throw in the garbage. There are also specialized pet waste composting systems available for purchase.

Diseased or insect-ridden plants and invasive weeds: English ivy, Japanese knotweed, blackberry, bindweed (often called “morning glory,” but it isn’t).

Evergreen leaves, holly, berry brambles, and rose stems. These take long time to decompose and you can injure yourself trying to chop up the prickly stems!

Sawdust or shavings from painted or treated wood.

Coated paper: photo, copy, or waxed.

For helpful tips, visit www.gardenhotline.org or call 206.633.0224. Garden Hotline can also be found on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter. Visit the Tilth Alliance website for more information: www.seattletilth.org.