I used to be a fanatic about compost. In addition to our own kitchen and garden waste, for 15 years I recycled the leavings from Not Bread Alone, Amherst’s free meal site. Every Sunday, 12 months a year, I would bring back three to six buckets of vegetable peelings and over-the-hill fruits, dump them in a four-by-four-foot enclosure and cover them with leaves. Every May I would layer them into another enclosure with grass clippings and/or manure, with a little dirt, lime, wood ashes and water thrown in. By the next spring I would have lots of homemade fertilizer. I even used a compost thermometer; sometimes I would get the compost up to 150 degrees, a level of heat that kills weed seeds and pathogens.
I’m more modest now. No more compost competition. I recycle just our own kitchen waste, in two Earth Machines (in one photo I’m putting lots of kale stalks into one) and also have a larger, round enclosure (I’m shoveling finished compost from it in the other photo). I stopped using grass clippings for the nitrogenous materials, because I couldn’t be sure they hadn’t been sprayed with herbicides, and now use chopped-up comfrey plants or horse or donkey manure donated by friends. I still stick in my thermometer, but won’t sweat it if it takes a while for the mixture to break down into compost.
Organic gardeners treasure compost. It improves the fertility of soil, improves water retention in sandy soils, lightens up heavy clay soils, balances acidity, attracts earthworms and can be used as mulch. (It saves on landfill space, too.) This morning I filled two plastic bags with compost and put one on each handlebar of my bicycle, then went to my community garden plot two miles away and spread it out around my broccoli plants. When it rains tonight, all the goodies in the compost will sink into the soil and help the plants grow.
The trick to making compost is getting the composition of materials right. You need three parts carbon materials (usually leaves) to 1 part nitrogen materials (kitchen scraps, grass, manure), and the right amount of water and air. If you’ve made the pile right, it doesn’t smell. The thermometer is valuable because when you’ve got the right mixture of materials, the needle shoots up. My biggest failing in making compost is that I haven’t found a way to shred leaves, so they sometimes get compacted and don’t break down so readily.
There’s no need to buy compost from a garden store when you can make your own!