Planning a garden? Then you definitely may already be asking…what type of fertilizer should I use? Is compost good enough? Will it suffice my gardening plans? Is it cost-effective?
Yes, it is.
Whether you’re new to gardening or not, it makes lots of sense to ensure your garden is enriched with adequate nutrients to guarantee a good harvest all year round.
Naturally, even the best of soil loses its nutrient wealth over time as you garden, hence replenishing. And there is no better, easier, and inexpensive way to do that than to add compost.
Compost is highly rich in nutrients that will boost your soil moisture content in addition to improving its structure.
What is Compost?
This is simply the decayed organic matter—the final product you get after decomposing food scraps and other yard wastes.
Benefits of making organic fertilizer
- It’s cheap and easy to make…free if you opt for the open compost pile.
- It’s a great way to introduce (and constantly nourish) the beneficial organisms to your soil, which then help with aeration, break down the organic matter for plant use, and ward off plant disease.
- Helps reduce landfill waste.
The benefits to your garden include the following:
- Improved soil structure
- Feeding your soil with more organic matter implies more air pockets for nutrients and water to effectively circulate without much struggle.
- Improved soil structure also means reduced chances of erosion.
- Improved moisture retention
- Enriching your soil with compost helps enhance its water-holding capacity for longer periods, thus minimizing the need for frequent irrigation. In the end, saving you time and money.
- Helps balance your soil pH, bringing it to the ideal range for maximum nutrient availability to plants.
- Improved nutrient levels
Other than the “Big 3” nutrients (phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen), compost also enriches your soil with other beneficial elements like magnesium, calcium, zinc, and iron—all useful to the plants.
What to compost and what to avoid
Not everything should go into your compost—some can be poisonous—and so be careful with what you use. We share some of the guidelines offered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Here is what to compost
- Fruits and vegetable scraps (rich in nitrogen—use together with dry carbon items).
- Animal manure from herbivores—grass eaters like horses, cows, sheep, goats, Llamas, AND pets such as hamsters and rabbits (contain nitrogen—an excellent source of Greens)
- Paper towels (should be free of chemicals)
- Cardboard (contains carbon—shred the material to make spreading easier)
- Crushed eggshells (Are neutral)
- Coffee grounds and filters (contains nitrogen—good for your compost)
- Fireplace ashes (sprinkle to prevent clumping)
- Grass clippings (rich in nitrogen—add in thin layers to avoid clumping).
- Corn stalks (contains carbon—if possible, chop them up since they decompose at a slower rate. You can also include the cobs).
- Tea leaves (nitrogen-rich)
- Green comfrey leaves (contain nitrogen—are excellent compost activator).
- Table scraps
- Leaves (contains carbon—shred to speed up decomposition).
- Pine needles (rich in carbon—it’s acidic, therefore, moderate the use).
- Newspapers (contain carbon—avoid the ones with colored ink. Do not use glossy papers).
- Chicken manure (rich in nitrogen—and therefore, an excellent compost activator)
- Yard trimmings (not treated with pesticides)
- Old houseplants (contain nitrogen)
- Hay and straw (carbon-rich)
- Shredded newspaper
- Wood chips (rich in carbon)
- Sawdust pellets—ensure they’re clean; should not have any traces of oil residues from the machine or cutting equipment.
Also, be sure to mix the sawdust properly or scatter thinly to avoid clumping.
What to avoid and why
- Meat, bones, fish, or poultry scraps (they attract pests)
- Peach peel, banana peels, and orange rinds (may have pesticide residues)
- Dairy products (pest issues)
- Charcoal ash or coal (contain harmful substances—to plants)
- Pet manures (dog or cat wastes might contain germs or parasites)
- Black walnut leaves (contain substances harmful to plants)
- Diseased plants or perennial weeds (you might, unknowingly, spread diseases or weed seeds when laying your compost)
How to compost
Before you kick off the process, ensure you have the right compost bin that meets your needs.
Tips on choosing the right compost bin: Consider your budget, the available space in your yard, the size of your garden, and the household waste you have (in other words, what you’ll be composting).
Choose an ideal spot in your garden for the compost bin—somewhere partially shaded or sunny.
Also, be sure to set the bin on a grass or soil base to make it easy for the beneficial insects and microbes to enter the decaying material, thus speeding up the composting process.
Also known as compost digesters, these standard compost bins are ideal for gardeners with limited space and would mostly be composting kitchen scraps and some yard waste.
The bins come adequately enclosed (at the top and on the sides) to help keep off pests and rain from interfering with the contents. They have open bottoms, so you sit them directly on the ground.
They’re the most practical, least expensive, and low on maintenance. However, it may take several months (6-12 months) to produce compost. This is mainly because it’s almost impossible to turn the compost.
Compost tumblers are the most efficient version of the enclosed bin.
They’re relatively easy to aerate courtesy of their energy-efficient design and the fact that they encourage turning to help keep the microbes active and aerated—eventually speeding up the decomposition process.
Tumblers come in various sizes and designs—with some featuring aeration spikes or interior paddle, which helps aerate the compost while also preventing the composting materials from clumping.
Their enclosed nature helps keep the compost neat and odor-free, free from rodents, dogs, and raccoons, AND accelerates the composting process.
They can be used year-round owing to their higher internal temperature.
Once your tumbler is fully loaded and the decomposition begins, wait before adding additional materials.
Also known as “trench composting,” trenching is a composting method whereby you bury food scraps and other organic wastes directly into the garden soil.
It’s a more secretive and easier way to create an underground band of humus for your plants.
Unlike the conventional composting methods, trenching allows you to compost everything from meat, dairy products, grains to all those organic wastes (including pet waste) you can’t have in your bins.
Just ensure that the wastes are covered by at least 12-18 inches of soil, so the rodents don’t get access. This also helps reduce the possibility of pathogen spread.
With pet waste—do not trench within 10 feet of your where your pet “does business.”
Now, onto the composting process.
Ensure you put in the right mix of ingredients to yield quality compost.
You do not want to end up with a smelly mountain of sludge, and so, your browns and greens should roughly be of equal proportion.
Browns refer to the carbon-rich organic matter. They supply decomposer organisms with the energy they need to consume and break down your compost pile contents.
Brown wastes are slow to rot and exhibit high contents of fiber.
Greens refer to the nitrogen-rich organic matter. They provide protein to the decomposers.
They’re quick to rot and carry high moisture content.
Just that you may know, the end product should be crumbly in texture, dark brown, and exhibit a slightly sweet woodland-like damp smell.
Step by step guide: How to make compost
- Begin by placing a 10 cm layer of straw or twigs (coarse material) at the container’s bottom. This helps with drainage and air circulation.
- Add roughly equal amounts of your compost materials in 15cm layers, alternating dry and moist.
Alternation helps create a perfect balance for the entire composting process, minimizing the need to regularly turn the compost.
If you can, sprinkle some of your existing garden soil on to the top of each layer. Doing so introduces the vital fungus and bacteria that help kick-start the breakdown process.
- Cover the compost to help keep off rodents and also protect them from rain.
- Turn the contents over once every month to enhance aeration and speed up the entire process.
Depending on your decision—you can stop adding in more ingredients and leave the compost to mature. Alternatively, begin using the bottom layers which have fully composted—that is, if you’re using a plastic bin.
To speed up the composting process, consider filling the whole bin at once. A big stack has adequate mass to effectively generate the much-needed heat for decomposition, as compared to when you add in the materials in small portions at a time.
However, if you find it easy and convenient to gradually add in the materials, follow this simple rule: Ensure that you put in some green every time you add brown waste. This will help create air pockets to constantly keep the mixture aerated and also enhance the composting process.
In the case of an open compost pile…
- Consider starting the compost on bare soil—to allow the beneficial organisms (including worms) to do their aeration job.
- Set down straw or twigs first, some inches deep, to help aerate the pile and aid drainage.
- Bring in the compost materials. Add them in layers, alternating the dry and moist (green and brown).
- Add your green manure. You can use grass clippings, clover, wheatgrass, or any other compostable nitrogen source. This helps activate the compost pile while also speeding up the process.
- Water the compost occasionally to keep it moist.
- Cover the pile to help retain the heat and moisture and keep it from being soaked by rain. As you may already know, compost should be moist and not drenched. You can use plastic sheeting, wood, or carpet scraps to cover.
- Using a shovel or pitchfork, turn the pile every few weeks to keep it aerated.
- You can opt to mix in the new materials rather than layering them when adding them to your already established compost pile. And that is if you have plenty of coarse material.
Another effective “no turn” option is to ensure you thoroughly mix in sufficient coarse material, such as straw, in the initial stages when you’re just building the compost. It helps boost your pile’s nitrogen levels.
Mixing, just like turning, helps improve aeration.
The Open Compost Pile is ideal if you reside in an area with adequate outdoor space (think of that acreage in the rural set up), where you can easily compost your kitchen scraps and lots of other yard waste.
If you live in an urban setting with no outdoor space, consider a worm bin since you’ll mostly be composting kitchen waste.
In case you have a balcony or patio, you may want to opt for a compost tumbler (for kitchen scraps and some yard waste) or the worm bin (for kitchen waste).
A few facts about worm bin
It’s a simple and more convenient way to dispose of (in this case, compost) kitchen scraps, especially if you reside in an area with no outdoor space.
The method uses compost worms—a slightly different species from the earthworms. These worms are largely surface feeders and prefer living in mulch or organic material.
And so the bin is designed to provide a conducive environment for them to thrive in as they do their noble duty of transforming the organic waste into vermicast—a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer used as a soil conditioner.
Hints for healthy fertilizer
1 – Decide on the perfect spot to set your compost bin
Consider a level, well-drained, partially shady, or sunny spot in your garden. This ensures adequate heat distribution and makes it easy for any excess water to drain away.
It also makes it easy for the worms to access the pile and work on it.
2 – Invest in a compost bin that meets your needs
Where you live, what you intend to compost, and the budget at your disposal are just some of the crucial items to consider when buying a compost bin.
If you’re working with a tight budget and still want to compost, you can try the DIY compost bins.
3 – Put only the right materials in your bin
You can refer to the “what to compost” list above and use it as a guideline when you’re ready to start composting.
4 – Strike the correct balance
A healthy fertilizer (compost pile) should have more Carbon than Nitrogen, which should be in the ratio of 2/3 to 1/3.
Also interpreted as 2/3 brown materials and 1/3 green materials.
Too much nitrogen slows down the decomposition process creating a dense and smelly pile. And that’s why it’s better to have more carbon material—to not only aerate the pile (by allowing oxygen to penetrate through and nourish the beneficial organisms that work on your compost) but also quicken the process.
5 – Ensure adequate aeration
If you’re doing the “no turn” method, then arm yourself with the right turning tools. Turning your compost pile regularly helps to mix up the contents, enhance aeration, and eventually leads to faster composting.
6 – Allow the worms to do their job
Simply site the bin on grass or soil for the worms to access your organic waste. They’ll do the vital part of breaking it down into a beneficial end product, just as we saw earlier.
And so, this brings us to the question…
Should you add or not add worms to your compost?
The truth is that worms are just part of the many organisms that help with the decomposition process, as there are lots of other microbes, bugs, and fungi that also contribute to the crucial rotting process.
Yes, the worms’ presence is helpful. However, composting still takes place regardless of the number you have in your compost pile.
With that said, let’s look at everything here from a different angle…
Worms are known to be heavy consumers of decomposing matter, and therefore, introducing more of them into your compost pile simply implies a more efficient and faster composting process.
Adding worms to your compost
Not all worm species prefer the environment inside a compost bin, ensuring you get the right type of worms.
Red worms going by the name “red wigglers” are the ideal addition to your bin. These worms enjoy eating rich organic matter and can tolerate an extensive range of temperatures.
They’re not intimidated by crowded conditions. It’s like such conditions even fuel their reproduction process.
A small number will quickly reproduce within a short time.
Therefore, all you need to do once you bring them into your bin is to heavily feed them with your kitchen scraps and yard waste.
As they feed, they also move around, and in the process, creating tunnels that help improve water and air circulation within the compost. This, in turn, encourages the aerobic bacteria to easily execute their task of decomposition.
Note that adding worms to your compost bin isn’t necessary but can be helpful.
How to use compost in your garden
Now you’ve made this wonderful organic material… what to do next?
1 – Use it to mulch
The natural absorbent and dense nature of compost make it a perfect tool for enhancing your soil’s moisture retention ability.
A good general rule is to apply 1-3 inches to your vegetable garden or flower bed(s) and rake until even.
2 – Incorporate into your garden beds in the Fall or early Spring
If you have sandy or clay soil, you may want to improve its structure and nutrient retention ability. And so, add 1-2 inches of compost to your garden bed when planting.
This will also improve your plants’ root development, disease resistance, and drought tolerance ability.
3 – Spread it out on your new or established lawn
Most homeowners prefer Fall as the best season to plant and carry out maintenance on their lawns owing to the conducive weather it presents.
If you’re one of them, then consider adding a 1-2 inch compost layer to the top of your lawn. Do this in the weeks before planting to help boost your soil’s condition and offer the nutrients that your seeds require to thrive.
4 – Use it to top-dress your garden beds
Twice a year, sprinkle the compost along your garden’s soil surface. It helps improve water absorption and cases of runoff.
5 – Feed your container plants
As you care for your potted plants, ensure you feed them with some screened compost to enhance growth.
6 – Use it to make a potting mix
Screened compost makes good potting soil that keeps your container plants nourished.
Simply mix 3-parts vermiculite or perlite and 1-part compost.
While the compost plays its role of moisture retention, the vermiculite or perlite ensures an excellent balance in the water-retention properties of your soil.
7 – Mix it with your local soil when planting shrubs or trees
In the planting hole, create a uniform mixture of soil and compost, then put in your plant and water.
The mixture creates a perfect transitional growing environment enabling your plant roots to easily break through the potting mix while flourishing into the surrounding local soil.
Here are some composting problems you may experience; and how to fix them
1 – The pile isn’t composting…
If you notice your compost isn’t breaking down—too woody, consider adding more green materials such as grass clippings, well-rotted chicken manure, or comfrey leaves. These are great compost activators.
2 – The compost is too dry or too wet
When there is too much moisture, the pile contents become slimy and smelly. Too little moisture, on the other hand, slows down the composting process.
Use a fork to turn the pile over and check the moisture levels.
A positive sign that all is well should be a damp look all the way through.
If it appears dry, consider adding some water, then turn once more to mix.
After a few (5-7) days, come back and assess the condition.
If it appears wet, cover it from rain and regularly turn to enhance the aeration. You can add in more dry materials such as shredded cardboard, straw, or sawdust.
3 – Unpleasant odors coming from the compost pile
There are two ways to fix that: first, ensure you don’t put meat scraps or bones into the compost.
Second, ensure you cover any new additions to your pile with some dry grass clippings.
Adding calcium or lime can also help neutralize odors.
4 – The pile is heating up
No worries. It’s just the large community of microscopic organisms working through your compost.
5 – Lots of fruit flies attracted to your compost
Fruit flies are harmless. However, they can be a nuisance. To keep them away, cover the bin with a lid.
Also, consider burying any exposed vegetable or fruit scraps rather than just mounting them on top of the pile.
The Takeaway on Making Organic Fertilizer for Your Garden
Ready to take on the process? Follow the above tips to ensure a constant supply of organic fertilizer to keep your garden nourished.
You can always produce as much compost as you wish, even if you’re a seasonal gardener, and store until you need it.
Simply screen before storing.
The ideal compost container should be breathable so as not to suffocate the aerobic microbes. You can use plastic containers—but punch air holes on the sides, and store in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to apply the compost in your garden.