Backyard gardens have become increasingly popular over the past few years as more people work from home and want to start growing their own food. One big mistake most new gardeners make is focusing too much on the plants themselves, and not enough on the health of the soil beneath them.
When we moved onto our property, the soil was hard, packed down, and weeds grew everywhere. If we had just focused on pulling weeds, spraying them with chemicals, or tilling the dirt, we would have caused more damage in a number of ways. I learned early on that weeds grow in soil that is nutrient-depleted to bring nutrients back into the soil. Spraying, pulling, or tilling would have just caused more depletion of nutrients, calling more weeds to come and join the party.
Instead of focusing on the weeds, we focused on what the weeds were telling us about the health of our soil. And we soon learned that organic matter was the best way to rehabilitate our precious dirt.
We brought cows and chickens onto the ranch to help bring and spread organic matter around the soil (yes, I’m talking about their pee and poop). I don’t necessarily recommend manure for the basic home gardener; there are easier (and better-smelling) ways to do this in your own backyard to help your garden flourish each growing season. That best way for home gardeners to freshen their soil is to spread compost, which is just a hodgepodge of any organic waste you naturally produce in your house (veggie/fruit stems, coffee grounds, etc).
Here are some tips for creating compost for your own backyard garden so you don’t have to rely on cows and chickens to create it for you!
Choose a space for the compost to live
This can be a bin or a pile, both are effective! The main difference is that a bin will keep things more contained (especially good if you have mischievous kids or curious pets).
Location is also important here. Look for a space that is flat, well-drained, and easily accessible.
Differentiate between browns and greens
There are two main ingredients in a compost pile: nitrogen-rich (greens) and carbon-rich (browns) ingredients. Carbon-rich ingredients fuel microorganisms and nitrogen-rich ingredients provide the proteins for these organisms to grow and multiply.
Layer the browns and greens
Drainage is important, so starting your compost pile with a layer of twigs, hay, or straw can help keep it draining properly. Then layer your browns and greens on top, with four times as much (by volume) carbon-rich (browns) to nitrogen-rich (greens) ingredients.
Maintenance is key
You can leave it to decompose on its own, but it isn’t the most effective way to create healthy compost. Any time you add new material, mix it with the layers below it to speed up decomposition. Aim to keep the consistency of your compost moist, but not soggy, like a rung-out sponge. If it’s too wet, add brown materials, if it’s too dry, add wet materials or water. If it’s stinky, add a little straw or newspaper shavings. And don’t forget to mix it at least once per week!
How long does compost take?
It can take anywhere from 2 to 12 weeks for compost to be ready for use. It’s ready when it’s dark, crumbly, and smells earthy.
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