One of the best ways to enrich your soil is to add finished compost to your garden beds. Making your own compost is easy and cheap, and it cuts down considerably on the amount of solid waste that is sent to be buried in the landfill. Adding compost to your soil mimics what nature does with all growth from the previous year. Organic materials are broken down into nutrients that can be easily utilized by plants, and it adds fertility, increases water-holding capacity, and improves the structure of the soil.
There are many different methods of composting, from a slow pile yard waste in a pile in the corner of your yard) to a compost barrel that is turned and aerated daily. The aerobic, or hot, method yields finished compost quickly, and is better suited to those with a small yard than the “let it sit” method. This method is what I use, but I make my own compost bins.
All organic materials can be composted, but some materials will break down quicker than others, so having a slow pile for orange/banana/avocado peels and the like is helpful. Fats and meats decompose slowly, so if you have issues with rodents, raccoons or neighborhood dogs, don’t put them in your pile.
We keep a 2 gallon bucket with a lid under the counter for all of our kitchen scraps, and one of our family chores is to empty it into the compost pile daily. We’ve never had issues with it smelling up the house, but if you don’t empty it regularly, it will start decomposing in the bucket. Fruit flies love the compost bucket as well, but if it has a tight fitting lid and is cleaned regularly, they aren’t a problem.
The materials that will make up the bulk of the pile are usually kitchen scraps, grass clippings, dried leaves, and weeds. Any weeds from your yard should be wilted in the sun before putting in the pile, so they won’t root there. I keep a pile of weeds and clippings next to the pile that are wilting, and cover my kitchen waste with them.
The easiest bin to make is chicken wire or hardware cloth (wire mesh with large openings). This style does not need any support, but in order to turn it, you have to take the chicken wire off. I have used this method for years, building a new pile when one gets full, until I have three. Then I take the wire off of the first one and turn it and let it sit until done. 16 feet of hardware cloth or chicken wire 4 feet high will make a pile about 5 feet across, which is big enough for most households. Use baling or fencing wire, and wire the ends together at the bottom, middle, and top. You could stake it to the ground if you need to, but once it gets a little filled up, it’s not going anywhere.
One thing to keep in mind is the ratio of brown (carbon) to green (nitrogen) in the pile. 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen is recommended. No need to measure, though. Just be sure to add more carbon sources if you have a lot of nitrogen sources. Most kitchen waste is high in nitrogen, as is grass clippings. Carbon sources include sawdust and dry (brown) yard waste. If you’ve got lots of carbon and need nitrogen to add to your pile, pee on it. Urine is a potent source of nitrogen and is perfectly safe for compost and garden alike.
If you have picky neighbors, keep a pile of sawdust or leaves handy to cover your pile every time you add to it. Go to a cabinet shop that uses all real wood (no particle board or plywood) and get as much as you can haul for free. Stay away from plywood and particle board sawdust, as they both have glue in them and should not end up in your garden.