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How to Make Garden Compost Without Losing Your Mind – part 1

Recipes for compost are like any other recipe: they are meant to be experimented with to suit individual needs and preferences. If you are at all like me, there have been times when you didn’t start something because “you weren’t quite set up to do it right.” The fact is, “right” is an evolving concept for many things. It can change with your economic circumstances, your time, your preferences, to name a few. The “experts” have good ideas to offer, but those ideas should never hold you back from making adjustments that just let you get started. The basic recipe for compost is… hold your breath… things that rot, plus a bit of water and heat. There is a reason that artifacts of ancient civilizations survive longer in places like Egypt. Lack of water. And there are those famous frozen beasts in ice. Not composted at all. So let that be a lesson to you. If you want to make compost in the polar regions, bring a heater. There are a couple of things that can help you avoid unwanted visitors to your compost pile. Don’t put stuff in your compost that will attract them. Try to think like a rat or a skunk for a moment. It shouldn’t take long. Okay, so now you know not to put things like meat and eggs in your compost, unless you are hoping for collection of rodents. So what does that leave you with for ingredients? Lots and lots of plant matter and some manures. Let me start a list to get you thinking:

  • left over kitchen vegetables and fruits (take labels off of peels)
  • grass clippings
  • fall leaves
  • tender weeds
  • herbivore manure
  • insectivore manure

In the plant matter category, there are still some things you might want to resist adding to the mix.

  • I never put bind weed or weeds going to seed in my composting area, even though it will be mixed by my chickens in their pen.
  • I dispose of fibrous or woody plants either in the trash or by turning them into mulch with my chipper. (My little chipper has earned back it’s cost many times) 
  • If the lawn has recently been treated or the weeds sprayed, they are bagged for trash.
  • If there is a serious insect infestation on plants, it depends on how well I think my chickens can devastate the insect population. I wouldn’t put them in a compost pile not tended by chickens.

I have read recommendations for correct ratios of green to dry ingredients for compost. Since I haven’t figured out what exactly to do with the incorrect ratios of things, I just add them anyway. So far so good. Do I add water? The sprinkler system is set to include my composting areas. Sun or shade? Sure. It might affect how fast things compost and how much water you need to add, but you can experiment with that. Turning and layering are useful. You have probably accidentally left a pile of grass around too long. It would compost sooner or later, but not before you had to start wearing breathing gear out in your yard. It also seems to be the kind of place that voles like to set up house.  Hence, the spreading of the grass in layers no more than 2 inches is a good idea. And the chickens are amazing rototillers. That’s why mine are not free range throughout the entire yard. They have their fun in the compost that I put in their pens.

Chickens helping to compost lawn clippings while <a href="" target="_blank">under surveillance in their large pen</a>.

Chickens helping to compost lawn clippings while under surveillance in their large pen.

When I was raising small children, my level of active composting was spreading grass clippings in the raised beds and as mulch in the pathways. This may not have provided a lot of nutrients for my plants that first couple of years, but places that I did that definitely have better soil than places I didn’t.  Since I was always behind schedule with yard clean-up, quite a few autumn leaves have decomposed in various windblown places, too. I would sometimes just move them back from smothering desirable plants and leave them to rot. Once we got chickens, I was thrilled to be able to add all the kitchen leftovers to the mix. I still mulch with grass clippings, but the chickens get some, too. In part 2 of How to Make Compost Without Losing Your Mind, I will show you my dad’s composting system. He says it is “a work in progress,” but isn’t everything we are doing? We are always learning. We learn from others. We continually learn about our specific environment. We learn we just don’t want to do things a certain way. So just dig in and start making yourself some compost.

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