A man standing in front of a pile of composte.

Composting 101

For your soil there is no better ingredient than compost, whether you till it into the beds or use it as mulch. Ned Conwell (owner of Blue House Farm in Pescadero, California) is up to his elbows in the stuff, both as a farmer and as a teacher.

"Once it's in the soil, compost increases fertility; adds both micro- and macronutrients; buffers pH; and improves soil structure," Conwell says. Here is his foolproof method for making compost.

A pile of composte is sprayed with water.

Where do you begin?

I pick a spot that's 4 or 5 feet square — partial shade is best — and go over the soil with a digging fork. Then I spread brown matter (straw, dry leaves) and green matter in alternating 2- to 3-inch layers. The first layer is brown, the second is green, and the third is brown. I water each layer so the finished pile is as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

Manure is added to the top of a composte pile.

What else goes into the pile?

The fourth layer is horse manure, whose extra nutrients give the pile a kick. (You can also use bagged chicken or steer manure.) Two or three times during the layering process, I throw on a shovelful of finished compost. I cover the pile with a 6-inch cap of straw to hold in nitrogen and shed rain.

A thermometer in the composte pile reads the temperature.

How do you tend the pile?

I let it heat up for 10 to 14 days. When the temperature inside reaches 140° or 150°, I pull off the straw cap and turn the pile by pushing it over and dividing it. Then I reassemble it (but not in layers) and put the straw cap back on. When the temperature climbs to 130° or 140°, I turn the pile again.

A handful of composte, which resembles dirt.

How do you know it's done?

After I turn the pile three times in four to six months (adding water if it starts to dry out), it has an earthy smell and lots of worms and roly-polies. You can't recognize anything that went into it.

Adapted from text by Jim McCausland, Sunset

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