How to - Techniques

The secret to making good compost

Find the right balance to create the ultimate gardener's 'gold'

Cooking the pile
Along with the correct ratio of browns to greens, there are two other factors that contribute to speedy, effective composting: adequate moisture and oxygen flow. Again, it's a matter of balance. The materials should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge; if you've piled in dry leaves, for example, it's a good idea to run a garden hose to the top of the pile and soak it for a few minutes. Or, you can add water to each brown layer as you build the pile; chances are the green layers are already moist.

The best way to ensure adequate air movement is to stir the pile every week or so. You can use a commercially available compost turner, a pitchfork or a sharp stick. (I've even used an old broom handle.) While you're turning the pile, check the moisture level, and add water if necessary—think of the wrung-out sponge for guidance. Move the materials at the sides to the centre, where the temperature can reach 52 degrees Celsius or more, so all materials get cooked.

Earthworms around the base of the pile are a good sign; they help micro-organisms break down the debris.

Fresh from the oven
You'll know your compost is ready when it looks and smells like soil. Dig it out; screen out any small bits of undigested materials and throw them back in. Spread compost throughout the garden: top-dress your lawn with a thin layer, dig it into new beds, or mound it around the base of established plants. You'll soon discover, as committed compost enthusiasts everywhere have, that you can never have enough.

Spoiling the pot
While most organic materials can be added to a compost pile, a few waste categories should be avoided because they may carry pathogens or attract pests: meat; fish; dairy products; fatty, oily foods; bones; used cat litter and other pet waste. As well, some materials, such as corn cobs and small twigs, take a long time to break down, so you may need to screen them out of your finished compost and put them in again to decompose further.

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