The Magic of Compost

Jun 6, 2016
Green Waste


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If you are new to vegetable gardening, don't let the fear of making mistakes hold you back. You might lose a few plants but that is how we all learn what works and what doesn't.

Not Another Learning Experience

The first big vegetable garden I planted (way back in 1976) struggled to survive. The soil was terrible—just gravel with little topsoil and no organic matter. I didn't realize that my backyard was also the leach field for our septic system! We lived on a 250 acre farm and could have chosen a much better location but I thought that vegetable gardens belonged in the backyard. I learned the hard way that soil is the key to a successful garden and it is much more important than what the neighbors think. The next year we plowed up a weedy side lot where I grew the best vegetables of my life in the deep, stone-free, sandy loam. Now that I live on a rocky hillside and am not blessed with perfect soil, compost has become my best friend.

The Magic Ingredient

Compost is the gardener's secret weapon. It has been called the great equalizer because of its ability to fix any soil problem. Is your soil too sandy? Compost will hold sand particles together so they can absorb water like a sponge. Troubled by hard clay soil? Compost attaches to particles of clay, creating spaces for water and nutrients to flow to plant roots.

Compost Happens

A well-built compost pile needs only four things:

  • Brown matter. This is carbon-rich material such as leaves and spent garden plants.
  • Green matter. These are nitrogen-rich materials like grass clippings, weeds, manure, and kitchen scraps.
  • Water. The pile should be kept consistently moist, especially important if you add lots of dry leaves or hay. Usually rainfall is enough to keep it damp but in a dry summer you might have to spray it with water.
  • Air. Oxygen is necessary for aerobic micro-organisms to survive. They are the ones doing all the work of turning your garden waste into black gold.

There are some things you should NOT put in your compost pile such as kitty litter, pet poop, bones, meat scraps, dairy products, or grease.

If you are collecting grass clippings from the neighbors make sure they don't use weed killers on their lawns. Those chemicals take forever to break down and will negatively impact any plants you use your finished compost on.

To Bin Or Not To Bin

Fancy bins are nice but not necessary. You can just pile up your ingredients on the ground. As long as the pile ends up being at least 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 4 feet deep it should be successful.

Alternate layers of brown and green matter when building your pile and add a few shovels full of garden soil to contribute those essential soil microbes. The more green matter the hotter the pile will get and the faster it will decompose. Heat also helps to kill off disease spores and weed seeds.

Many people turn their compost piles several times over the summer but I'd rather turn the pages of a book while lying in the hammock. Turning your compost helps speed up the process of decomposition but is not necessary. It will all rot eventually. When fall rolls around you can start a new pile while letting this one continue to decompose. In the spring peel the top off the first pile and you should find some awesome black gold at the bottom!

You don't have to dig too deeply to discover the secret to a great garden—it is your soil and compost is a sure-fire way to improve it.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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during the winter time i throw in to my garden all the rest of vegetables and fruits.and the new season i incorporated them in to the is good or not?


That's fine as long as there is no disease or fungus on those plants. Throw some soil over them to avoid rodents.

I bought compost because my

I bought compost because my city doesn't allow composting. I used to get it from a suburb by the pickup truck bed-full for under 20 bucks, but they have sold-out to a topsoil company, and prices are now sky-high,so I no longer buy there.

I noticed the MG Garden Soil (as well as MANY other brands jumping on the "garden SOIL" bandwagon) now looks nearly identical. I'm trying the Square Foot Gardening brand too which is considered "ready to use" without a need for additional fertilizer and all natural.

I had a big container left of the municipal compost and wonder how long "compost" remains "fertile?" I also have a bag or two of "Garden Soil" from last year and wonder if it has any fertilizing properties left.

Hi Mark, Compost is

Hi Mark,
Compost is considered more of a soil amendment rather than a fertilizer. It may lose some of its nutrients if not used right away and there may be less good bacteria in it if it is left to dry out but it is still a great source of organic matter. It really doesn't ever go bad. As for the MG stuff, if the bags were kept in a dry location they are probably fine. Have you considered moving to another town where composting is welcomed?

I have a four foot by 4 foot

I have a four foot by 4 foot pile of compost in the corner of my yard that I add grass clippings leaves kitchen scraps that is only vegetable matter to the pile along with weeds that I've pulled out of the yard that will hopefully just decompose entirely... My question is, does it help to add burned sticks and leaves?... I had burned a very small pile of sticks newspapers and leaves and had used some squirts of liquid charcoal starter to get it started...hope it all burned off! .....the pile was to the side of the compost pile, not in it...and it burned for a while because of the wood sticks...would thatsmall pile of ash be a good thing to add to the compost! My soil has a lot of pine trees around, and is on acidic side ( though I have never tested) I live in the southeastern US in SC. ...I did douse out the fire with water before late evening to be sure it was out. Thanks! Suzi in SC

Hi Suzi, Glad to hear you

Hi Suzi,
Glad to hear you are into composting! Normally I would say that ashes from a fire are great to add to the pile but the liquid charcoal starter scares me. I would not want that kind of chemical residue in my garden. Next time you burn, channel your inner girl scout and use the dry tinder - paper & leaves - to start the fire. It may take a little more time to tend it but it's nothing a bag of marshmallows won't cure. Wood ashes are an excellent way to sweeten your acid soil.

We've been doing a compost

We've been doing a compost pile for at least 5 years. With the exception of meat, fat, weeds, we throw everything on the pile. (We don't throw weeds because of the obvious reason.) We don't put anything on it that we know has been treated with pesticides, etc. The first year we just let it set. In spring when we went to use it, there were still pieces of "stuff" in it but we used it anyway. Garden was still fabulous that year. The second year and subsequent years we've turned it a couple of times during the summer and fall and let it set in the winter. Spring brought a deep brown/black soil with lots of worms. Jackpot. We've made some mistakes but just kept trying and wala! Just keep working at it.

TY very much this was a

TY very much this was a concise, easy to read, & informative article! ☺

Will snakes be attracted to

Will snakes be attracted to this in or out of a bin?

Hi Gerri, Call me crazy but I

Hi Gerri,
Call me crazy but I would be happy if snakes were attracted to my compost pile. They are great garden helpers since they eat lots of bad bugs. Most of them are more afraid of us than we are of them and mean us no harm. That said, I have not noticed any snakes slithering around my compost pile.


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