Making your own compost is one of the best things you can do for your garden. Compost is not only an excellent fertilizer and soil amendment but it's also free. Composting is a natural biological process that converts organic material into humus-like matter that gardeners refer to as "black gold."
You can make your own backyard compost container from welded wire mesh, concrete blocks or wooden shipping pallets—anything in which you can form a pile of compost material that's roughly 3-5 feet across and no higher than 5 feet.
However, it's easier to buy a commercial compost bin with features that make turning the contents easier, thus speeding up the decomposing process. The Home Depot carries compost bins by brands such as Exaco Trading Co., some units made from recycled plastic and the world's first continuous-cycle compost bin. This 3-bin compost allows you to add new waste from the top while removing mature compost at the bottom.
Step 1: Mix it
Place the bin near your garden and back door. A small indoor bin is handy to use along with the larger one outdoors. Throw scraps into the indoor bin and, as it fills up, empty it periodically into the outdoor one. Compostable items such as kitchen scraps, tea bags, coffee grinds and grass clippings can be added to the bin; so can brown materials such as dried leaves, sawdust, straw, wood ash and the woody stalks of plants.
Step 2: Layer it
Layer materials high in carbon, including lawn clippings, chopped leaves, green plants and agricultural crop residues with materials high in nitrogen, such as manure, alfalfa meal, hay, paper products, sewage sludge and wood. Just about any organic material can be added to the bedding, including food scraps, eggshells, tea leaves and coffee grounds. Never add chemically treated wood, diseased plants, human or pet waste, meat, bones, fatty foods or weeds. Add water regularly during the compost-building process and after it's done, letting it trickle into the pile to help get rid of air pockets.
Step 3: Turn it
You can begin to make compost in as little as a few weeks if you speed up the process by turning the pile with a pitchfork once a week and adding fresh manure. Mixing it allows oxygen into the center of the pile, encouraging the growth of bacteria and fungi, which break down organic material into simpler substances. Regularly turned organic matter will become finished compost in 4–8 months.
Step 4: Break it down
Compost is ready to be used when it is dark and crumbly and has an earthy smell. You can sift it to separate material that hasn't finished composting, but those pieces will continue to decompose in your garden. The smaller the pieces, the faster they will break down.
Step 5: Spread it
Once it's ready, work the compost into the soil to give it an organic boost before planting. Spread it on the soil's surface as mulch on flower beds and around the base of landscape plants. Compost may also be used as a top dressing for lawns or as an ingredient in potting mixes. For more great eco-friendly tips, check out the Healthy Homes tab on the Eco Options website.