Garden: Setting up your compost pile

By Grant McCarty
Local Foods and Small Farms Educator, University of Illinois Extension

As discussed last week in cleaning up your garden, you will end up with green material that can be used in setting up a home compost system. Composting is not an intimidating process. You take brown material and combine it with green material then let microbes break it down. The potentially challenging part is in the initial setup and ongoing management. By setting up a compost bin in the fall, it can overwinter and be used early next summer.

When compost is made properly, it is a great soil enhancer. It adds organic matter which can assist with soil building practices. The soil nutrient content is fairly low so it is not the best soil amendment option. As a soil enhancer though, it is perfect.

Compost works when you use the right ingredients. Green materials will include kitchen waste, garden debris, grass, and others. Do not use meat, fish, oils, or milk. Brown materials will be leaves, straw, and many others. Consider the product as well. A corn cob will take longer to breakdown than other products might.

There are numerous compost systems. Choose the one that works best for you. You can purchase plastic compost bins, set up a pile in your backyard, or make a 3 bin system utilizing wooden pallets. Each will have its drawbacks.

To set up a simple compost system in an area of your backyard you want an initial pile that is 3 ft by 3ft. Your first layer is going to be the brown material followed by green material. In general, you are aiming for a ratio of three parts brown to one part green. Follow this green layer with another brown layer then moisten these initial layers. Alternate until the pile has reached 3 ft tall with a final brown layer.

Management of the compost then becomes active or passive. For active compost, you need to turn it regularly as you are adding more layers to the compost. The passive compost approach is to let the layers break down without any turning. Compost will be created faster in the active approach compared to the passive. Compost will be ready when the pile has shrunk to half its original size, has materials that are unrecognizable, and has a dark, crumbly appearance.

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