Pile it on

Compost turns waste into some of the best food for your garden

Composting is an easy way to break into a lifestyle of reuse, a new way to pile and sort, and it promotes constant attention to what you eat and throw away. It can be simple or a complex scientific process to use vegetative matter from the kitchen and yard to create an effective and easy-to-use fertilizer. Here’s how to keep it simple.

Put ’er there

The location of a compost pile is determined largely by aesthetics. As bacteria develop and a compost pile becomes active, it heats up, but not to the extent that shade or sun significantly affects its success. For those with sensitive noses, start the pile away from the breakfast nook or the back patio. For those who don’t want to broadcast to visitors that they’re embarking on a sustainable experiment in decomposition, consider starting a pile behind the shed or on the other side of a retaining wall.

The principle of composting is to use what you already have, so you don’t need to buy a container and some “starter” as you would for a good sourdough. You’re trying to reduce the amount of waste you put at your curb every week, not find a reason to go to Lowe’s this weekend.

Contain yourself

“You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a bin,” says Carolyn Van Lydegraf of the Reno Garden Party, a new community gardening group with a focus on local and sustainable living. “You just need to make a pile.”

There are a few different ways to do it.

1) The method of least resistance: Build a mound as you go, using a bit of wet cardboard, leaves or mulch as a base, and pile as much or as little as you want to compost.

2) The clean-the-garage-as-you-go method: Build a three-sided bin with rebar and chicken wire, used pallets or scrap wood, about 3 feet wide by 3 feet high.

3) The eco-friendliest method: For those of you with access to farming materials, feel free to use a few hay bales as your composting boundary, following the same three-sided, 3 by 3 by 3 guidelines.

Members of the Garden Party say each of these methods work. Van Lydegraf suggests experimenting a bit to find what works best for you.

The easy way

Now that you have the location and the boundaries for your pile, it’s time to get started. With a 3 by 3 by 3 construction, you can safely start a 30-day composting pile, meaning the bacteria will be active and your compost ready to use 30 days after you have achieved critical mass—enough organic matter to fill your composting bin. As you add and turn and water and so on, you’ll increase the volume and the productivity of your pile and be able to add compost as soil amendment in your garden, flower patch or back 40. If you want to play it safe, says Van Lydegraf, “you can seed beneficial bacteria” by adding some finished compost from a friend’s pile.

The essentials

Temperature. The compost pile needs to be warm, even a bit hot. Heat indicates that the bacteria are active and are breaking down your organic material.

Balance. This starts out as layering, but as you mix and use your compost, the proportions will just become an approximation between your green matter—or nitrogen-rich ingredients like food scraps (no meat or oily items), coffee grounds, manure—and your brown matter or carbon-rich ingredients like leaves, cardboard, newspaper or mulch.

Aeration. Interaction with your pile starts here. Turn your compost so the bacteria get the oxygen they need.

Water. While you’re out turning your pile, test the water content of your compost—it should be damp “like a wrung-out dish rag,” says Van Lydegraf, to make sure there is enough moisture for decomposition. Water is essential to maintaining a healthy composting pile, especially in arid Nevada.