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Making Compost for Your Vegetable Garden

Wood slat compost bin

Compost is one of the best soil additives for a vegetable garden. It is also one of the least expensive. Composting turns garden and kitchen waste materials into a rich, organic amendment.

The main components of compost are lawn clippings, vegetable refuse, straw, leaves, and animal manure. When making compost, it is often necessary to add some organic nitrogen fertilizer to aid the decomposition process; this is especially true if your compost ingredients include lots of autumn leaves.

Compost pile using wire mesh

How to make compost in 15 easy steps:

  1. Construct a pile 3 to 4 feet (1-1.2m) high. A pile this size will hold the heat to promote decomposition while allowing sufficient air to enter the pile and minimize odor. A compost pile can be simply made with a cylinder of welded construction wire or four wood frames covered with chicken wire and nailed or latched together to form a cube; you can also use four panels of construction-grade wire mesh attached to 4 x 4-inch posts. A classic compost setup has three bins or sections: one to hold new material, a second bin for partially decomposed material, and a third bin for finished compost. Material can be forked from one bin to the next as composting progresses or a full bin can be allowed to decompose and the second and third bin started as the one before fills up.
  2. Locate your compost pile in a shady, flat, well-drained place. Till or dig the soil underneath the pile before you begin composting; this will allow for drainage and worms to enter the pile from the soil below.
  3. Spread a first layer of plant debris (leaves, weeds, or grass clippings) 6 to 8 inches (15-20cm) deep on the ground or in the bin.
  4. Add a 1-to-2-inch (2.5-5cm) layer of aged steer or chicken manure or a few handfuls of nitrogen rich fertilizer atop the plant debris. Then sprinkle topsoil atop that layer.
  5. Now you can add kitchen scraps (but not meat, fat, or bones or dairy products which can attract wasps and rodents).
  6. Continue to add layers of one material at a time.
  7. Chop or grind large material such as plant stems or branches into small pieces. Mix coarse material with finer material such as grass clippings.
  8. You can add weeds, but not weeds that have flowered. Avoid adding weed seeds.
  9. Keep the compost moist but not soggy. The compost should never be wetter than a squeezed-out sponge. Cover the pile with a plastic sheet or tarp during heavy rainfall.
  10. Turn the pile every 3 to 4 weeks to discourage odor and flies and to help the compost to decompose evenly. You can use a compost thermometer to monitor the temperature inside the compost pile. The internal heat should reach 140° to 150°F (60°-65°C).
  11. Add small amounts of nitrogen, such as fresh manure, blood meal or commercial organic nitrogen fertilizer, as each new layer is added. This will help keep the decomposition process going.
  12. Make the top of the compost pile slightly concave so that water can penetrate. If there has been no rain, water the compost every 7 to 10 days. This will aid decomposition.
  13. Speed up the process of decomposition by adding a few handfuls of fresh topsoil each time you add a layer of new organic matter. Topsoil is rich in microorganisms which speed the decomposing process.
  14. A mix of 50 to 60 percent by volume and weight of “brown” ingredients (straw, dry leaves) and 50 to 60 percent “green” ingredients (kitchen waste, grass clippings) fosters a faster-acting composting process.
  15. Compost is ready to use in the garden when it is crumbly and the starting materials have decomposed beyond recognition. This usually takes 1 to 3 months; faster when the weather is warm, slower when the weather is cool or cold.

Related articles of interest:

Earthworms and Soil Microorganisms

Improving Garden Soil with Organic Amendments

Your Vegetable Garden Soil

Plant Nutrients

Vegetable Plant Nutrients: Sources and Deficiencies

How to Improve Clay Soil

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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