Composting is a gardener’s black gold

By Pam Baytos

OSU Master Gardener Volunteer

Gardeners consider a well-cooked compost pile to be black gold for their garden. Compost is nothing more than organic materials that have been piled up and allowed to decompose to a crumbly, soil-like material that can be worked into the garden. The pile is turned to ensure all of the material gets a number of days in the center of the pile where temperatures get to required levels.

A compost pile is built up of layers of rough plant materials, green vegetation, kitchen waste, shredded paper, an occasional layer of soil, and even manures. These ingredients plus water, oxygen, heat, and organisms make the composting process happen.

Compost consists of:

Carbon: This is the rich component of a compost pile and is often referred to as brown material. It includes dead leaves, woody material and dried grass or straw.

Nitrogen: Greens are the nitrogen-rich component. Materials include fresh grass clippings, livestock manure and fruit and vegetable remains. I keep a crock on my kitchen counter for fruit and veggie scraps, along with egg shells, tea bags and coffee grounds/filters to provide this component.

Water: The organisms inside your pile need a warm, moist environment – but not too moist. If the pile becomes dry and flaky, water can be slowly added.

Oxygen: Decomposition happens faster with the flow of air. This is an aerobic process. Too much water eliminates the oxygen, making the pile anaerobic (and stinky).

Select an easy access location on level, well-drained ground by a windbreak that will prevent drying breezes. With a little research, you can decide what type of “pile” to build. Your bins can be as simple as a cage of wire fencing or wooden pallets. There are also commercial bins. Start by building a base with twigs to allow air flow. Begin your pile with a layer of brown material, then add a layer of green. Use three times as much brown to green to keep the balance right. Continue to build alternating layers and mix with a pitchfork to speed the composting process and incorporate the new layers into the hotter – usually center – sections. Finished compost is a dark brown to black, crumbly, soil-like material with a sweet smell.

Some things to NOT add to your pile include: dairy products, meat scraps, bones, house pet waste and diseased vegetation.

A good time to start your pile is with spring cleanup. Add to the pile during the summer with whatever compostable material comes to hand, like weeds and trimmings. In the fall, add garden waste and leaves. By garden time next spring, the pile is probably ready to be used in your garden.

I have a plastic bin with a door at the bottom. One year, I was ready to fill the garden wagon to top-dress my vegetable beds. I came out with a pitchfork full of baby garter snakes! I guess they were just helping the worms in the pile, but needless to say I did the “snake dance” all the way to the house and the garden didn’t get top-dressed until later that day.

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