GIMME SHELTER- Piling on: Great compost makes great crops

Norm Carlson
Snow's Garden Center


Q: I've been trying to live more "green" these days, but my kitchen waste has really increased with my present indulgence in lots of tasty summer produce. Now is the time to start that compost pile, but I don't want to create a big stinky mess in my yard. How can I compost without attracting the ire of my neighbors and the nose of every dog on the block?

A: Composting is an easy way to reduce your environmental impact, dispose of waste, and improve the quality of garden soil. Don't worry that the pile will smell unpleasant or attract animals– it won't as long as you follow a few simple guidelines.

Choose a location for your compost pile that's accessible to your garden but somewhat tucked away– convenient but inconspicuous. The spot doesn't need to be either particularly sunny or shady, but it should drain well. Check the spot after a rain to make sure it doesn't hold water, and don't compost in a hole or low spot in the yard. Also, you'll want the pile to be directly on top of soil, not on a platform or slab of concrete.

There are a couple of different ways to go about building your pile. Commercial compost bins will break down your compost more quickly than other methods, but they're small and can be expensive. You can also build any kind of three-sided enclosure, out of wire, fencing, or whatever you like. Finally, simply piling the materials in your chosen spot is perfectly effective, although a little messier looking than a contained space.

Many household waste materials can go into your pile. Basically any scraps from your kitchen make great compost, especially vegetable and fruit peelings, but don't include paper. Pile on your pulled-up weeds, as long as they have not gone to seed, and use yard refuse like pruning clippings, unless they're particularly woody. Finally, grass clippings are a great addition to a compost pile, although they do a great job of fertilizing your yard if you just leave them to compost right on top of the grass.

I know somebody who piled absolutely everything from his kitchen on the compost, and ended up with a slimy, stinky, nasty mess. He had to just bury the whole thing in the ground and start over. But this won't happen to you! Just avoid composting any kind of animal product, like dairy and meat scraps, since those materials will make the pile stink and attract animals.

Composting can be as simple or intense an operation as you choose, depending on how rapidly you want the compost to break down and be ready for use. To speed up the composting process, chop up food scraps and grind down yard materials, and churn the pile once every few weeks with a pitchfork. Layering the materials will also speed things up. Alternate layers of "green," like kitchen scraps and fresh grass, with "brown," like dried leaves and straw. Water the pile every few weeks, especially during dry weather, to keep the relevant microbes active.

A highly managed pile may turn into compost in a month or two, while a passive compost pile will take about a year and a half. The pile will produce about half the amount of compost as the amount of materials you put into it. The compost is ready to be spread over your garden or lawn when it's almost black and has a similar consistency and texture to potting soil. You won't really be able to distinguish the separate materials you originally piled on.

It can be hard to grow vegetables and flowers here in Central Virginia because the soil is largely hard-packed clay, which is low in organic matter. Compost is an indispensable soil amendment because it provides that missing organic element and will thus help your garden thrive.