All the Dirt: Compost 101

October 31st, 2008 by WY Daily Staff

All the Dirt: Compost 101

Most gardeners face numerous obstacles growing plants in Virginia’s native clay soil. My own yard is, in fact, the poster child for everything that works against growing healthy plants. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution that offers multiple benefits. It’s called compost.

Composting your yard and kitchen waste the right way will result in a rich and nutritious soil additive that can transform your garden and help ensure the health of your plants. Although getting it right can seem intimidating at first, it’s an easy and straightforward process.


Compost is produced when organic matter, such as kitchen and garden waste, is broken down by bacteria, fungi and other beneficial organisms. It’s really the process of managed rot. The formula for success is based on the proper ratio between the “greens” and the “browns.”

The green components of compost can be grass clippings and kitchen waste such as fruit, vegetables and egg shells. No meat scraps or fat. The brown ingredients refer to fallen leaves, straw, wood chips, sawdust and the like. I’ve found several different ratio recommendations and have tried most of them.

I’ve had the most success mixing four parts brown material to one part green material, a 4-1 ratio, and then I make adjustments as needed. The other three key ingredients are water, air and naturally occurring microorganisms. The heat that is generated in the center of the compost pile speeds up the rotting process—the higher the heat from the microorganisms, the quicker the ingredients turn into useable compost.

Your compost pile can be as simple as a mound on the ground, a homemade wire bin or a commercial compost bin. I prefer two side-by-side 3-cubic-foot wire bins, one for the mix that is decomposing and one for the finished product. The size of the bin matters. A pile smaller than 3 cubic feet won’t heat up sufficiently to decompose and a pile larger than 5 cubic feet won’t allow enough air to reach the middle of the pile.

It helps air circulation if you start with a palette or a layer of coarse foliage. Then simply add layers of “browns” and “greens” in a 4-1 ratio. It will expedite the process if you first chop or shred the material that you add to the pile. Lightly dampen the material in the pile to start the decomposition process and then keep it about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

The final critical step is to use a mulch fork or shovel to turn over your compost pile every few days. This mixes the ingredients but more importantly, it adds air into the pile and moves material from the outside of the pile into the heat in the center. The amount of time it takes to make earthy, rich compost is dependent on the heat produced. Hotter compost piles (150-160 degrees) can produce compost in 3-4 weeks, while cooler piles can take months to produce compost.

There are two common problems that may require you to alter your original recipe. A compost pile that doesn’t heat up within 48 hours may need more green material. Remember that the ideal temperature in the center of the pile should be 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit. A pile that develops a smell may need more brown material to absorb some of the moisture (shredded paper works) or more oxygen from turning the pile. With the correct recipe, there should be no odor.

Simply put, you mix the materials, add water, turn every few days to redistribute the mix, which also adds in oxygen. Sounds pretty easy. You may wonder “Why go through all this when I can just add in some 10-10-10? What’s so good about compost?” 

It’s a no brainer, really. Fertilizer vs. compost — it’s the difference between eating a well-balanced meal made with natural ingredients and eating a bag of chips and a multivitamin. Compost contains all of the major plant nutrients, most of the minor nutrients and millions of beneficial microorganisms that will continue to nourish your soil, providing long-term release of nutrients to your plants. Compost improves soil structure, increases the drainage of clay soils and improves the moisture retention of sandy soils. It’s simply the best thing you can do for your garden plants.


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