It’s no secret. The best compost is the compost you make yourself. Why? The answer has to do with what you put in your composter as well as what some of the big, commercial grade composters put in theirs.
Homemade compost can be better even if you don’t do your own composting. More about that later.
At the height of spring planting season, compost is on the move. Lots of us are out buying it to spread in our gardens. Those of us who make our own, are screening and harvesting compost from our bins and tumblers for application in our landscapes. We’re thinking about the next batch and what we’ll be throwing into our barrels or our piles, now that we’ve taken what we can.
When you make your own compost, you control what goes in. You keep harmful stuff out. You control the balance of ingredients and don’t rely on any one component, say the ubiquitous “forest products” that so many commercial grades of compost are mostly made of.
We want balanced compost, a fully finished compost that’s not too hot from manures not yet broken down, one that contains a variety of micronutrients and trace minerals, pH levels suitable to what you’re growing, a wide and plentiful population of beneficial microbial life, and a good balance of organic matter.
How to achieve it? By adding as many different brown and green materials as you can. They say variety is the spice of life. It’s also the secret to making the best compost.
Even as you add different materials to your heap, you’ll need to keep the recommended carbon-to-nitrogen (brown-to-green) ratio consistent at 25 or 30:1. This will also determine how much of different ingredients will go in. If you’re composting wood chips with their 400:1 brown-to-green ratio, you won’t need a lot to bring your grass clippings (20:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio) up to 30:1.
But that’s not the idea. A variety of materials — brown and green — is what to shoot for. The more varied the ingredients in your compost pile, the richer your compost will be with micro-nutrients and diverse, beneficial microbial life.
Lists of things that are okay to put into your compost pile as well as lists of thing that are not, are easy to find.
Generally, never add anything that will introduce toxins to your pile (charcoal ash, unless it’s strictly made from natural woods, like mesquite; coal ash), any manure that comes from a carnivore or omnivore (cats, dogs, and you, even if you are vegetarian), anything that might introduce disease into your gardens (plants sick with blights, molds, fungus, or pest infestation), and anything from your kitchen that’s not “green” (bones, meat, dairy).
Some ingredients come with asterisks. Wood chips are okay but not if they’re from treated wood. Cut firewood? You’ll have plenty (you won’t need much) to balance all those lawn clippings you’ll have through the summer. Most newspaper inks no longer contain lead (see Composting Paper). But color reproduction using chemicals you probably don’t want in your vegetable patch.
Same principles apply if you’re buying compost: use trusted, quality products. And use them in variety. That means mixing up various composts from different labels. The more varied your sources, the better the finished product.
Since you do the mixing at home — right in your garden — you can call it home-made.
It’s not hard to find quality, even OMRI listed bagged composts out there. Mix a couple three kinds together. Don’t be afraid to throw in a bag of worm castings or a specialty compost that’s a good source for calcium or other necessary minerals.
Your final product will end up being better than any of the products that went into its making, definitely a case of the sum being greater than its parts. Your soil will thanks you … with bounty!
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