Creating your own compost pile is a great way to add nutrients and helpful microorganisms to your soil, save money, and recycle waste. Composting is a great way to substitute fertilizer use, which is good not only for the environment but also for your wallet. September and October are the perfect months to start your compost pile; leaves are falling, garden vegetables are dying, and the holidays are about to provide us with more kitchen waste than we know what to do with. If correctly composted, you can use this material in the spring to fertilize your lawn and garden.

What You Can Compost

There are two types of organic material you use to build a compost pile: carbon-based and nitrogen-based. Carbon-based waste–often referred to as “brown material”–consists mainly of fall leaves, dead flowers or plant stalks, shredded newspaper, dried twigs and bits of wood or bark, wood ash, eggshells, straw, etc. Nitrogen-based waste, or “green materials”, are food scraps, green lawn clippings, green leaves, plant-based kitchen waste, and barnyard animal waste. Click here to see a chart of common waste-items and their classifications.

Do Not Compost

Keep vegetable or fruit rinds with pesticide residue out of your compost pile. Remember that everything you compost will eventually be transplanted to your garden and, therefore, the vegetables you eat. Also keep any kind of meat, bone or manure from carnivores like cats and dogs out of the pile as these will attract pests.  Make sure that any sawdust you add does not contain oil or chemicals and is only added in light, thin layers.

Where to Put a Compost Pile

Start your compost pile on a bare patch of dirt about 3ft X 3ft. Placing your compost pile on soil will help transport worms and other soil-enhancing microorganisms into your compost. You may want to put a layer of branches, twigs, or straw down first to provide aeration and drainage for your compost pile since the material needs to stay damp but not soggy.

Layering Materials and Waste

For a healthy, hygienic compost pile, add different materials in layers. Start out with a layer of nitrogen-based brown material several inches thick. Spread a few inches of green material on top of that. You want to keep the ratio at 3 brown parts to 1 green. On top of your green material, spread a thin layer of garden soil. Repeat the process as the season progresses, making sure to keep the pile moist but not soggy. Prevent over-hydrating the pile by covering it with wood, plastic sheets, or anything else you have on hand that will keep the rain out.

 layering your compost pile

Maintaining the Pile

Make sure you turn the pile every few weeks with a shovel or pitchfork. You want to bring all outside material to the center in order to mix in oxygen, which is necessary for decomposition. If you see steam rising from the pile, that means it’s decomposing. Eventually you will see worms in the pile and the center will turn into “black, crumbly, sweet-smelling ‘black gold‘.” Don’t forget to keep it moist! Water helps the material break down faster. Keep up that green-to-brown ratio, too; too much green material will cause your pile to become dense and smelly and to decompose slowly. If you see this happening, add more brown material. A good compost pile should smell fresh due to the brown materials that keep it fluffy, aerated, and provide carbon to offset the nitrogen. Keep turning the pile until winter covers it with snow. When spring comes, use a shovel to sprinkle the material across your lawn and garden. No store-bought fertilizers needed!

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