Everyone wants a beautiful and healthy garden, but not everyone knows how to achieve this without involving a lot of time and back breaking work.  When most people go to home centers such as Home Depot, Lowes, etc… they almost always end up buying a bag of compost or soil conditioner, and for good reason.  Adding compost to your garden improves its ability to sustain healthy plants by giving them not only the nutrients they need but also adding texture to the soil so that air can be incorporated and water can drain freely.  However, there is no need to buy it because natural compost material is everywhere which means it’s free.  In fact, anyone can make this highly sought after soil additive with little to no experience or time.  So, what exactly is compost?  Simply put, compost is decayed plant matter.  It can be made of anything that was once growing but can include animal (herbivore) manure but not fats or meats as that would attract animals once the fats go rancid.  Most people think of having to sort through and separate their table scraps when the idea of composting comes up but it doesn’t have to be like that.  If you or your neighbors mow a yard or rake leaves then you can have all the composting material you could ever want.  Just make sure that you ask them first and not make off with their yard waste in the middle of the night!

     Composting can be as complicated or as simple as anyone wants.  One person might try to get the prefect ratio, also known as the “golden ratio”, to attain just the right amounts of nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N,P,K) while another just throws stuff on the pile and leaves it alone.  Both methods work and while it might seem like a lot of work to maintain a compost pile, it really is the microscopic organisms that are doing all of the hard work.  There are two types of organisms that can be present in a compost pile, anaerobic and aerobic types.  Aerobic types thrive in an environment that has air, oxygen specifically, while anaerobic types do best in an environment that has no air or oxygen.  The aerobic method is odorless while the anaerobic process puts out a unpleasant odor if left completely sealed up without soil to absorb the byproducts.  Other than that, these two types need basically the same ingredients for survival, food, water, and a place to live, e.g. your compost pile.  The major difference of all composting methods is the time it takes for the matter to break down which can be affected by the “golden ratio”, three parts green or “soft” matter to one part brown or “woody” matter.

       In a traditional compost pile, different types of plant matter like grass clippings, dried leaves, etc... are placed in a pile of just the right size where it remains manageable but creates a center that has the best environment so the organisms can break everything down.  Since the byproduct of this process is gases, the pile needs to be turned with a pitch fork or other tool so air can be let in as well as push new material into the center where the highest concentration of organisms are.  This is what discourages most people from starting a compost pile.  Not only is it hard work and time consuming, it is also unsightly and kills grass where the pile sits.  Also, if the pile is not correctly made, it will seem to sit there and not do anything, causing you to make changes until it starts to compost.  It may be that there is too much brown or woody material and not enough green or soft matter or it just might need to be bigger to protect the center.  Experimentation is needed to find what works best for the waste material used.

     In today’s fast paced life, many people think that they don’t have the time to create or maintain a compost pile and since time is money they feel it would be best if the compost is just bought to save their time.  When you buy a cheap bag of compost, you cannot be sure of what went into that compost pile and often the bag has a lot of sticks and bark that is only partially composted.  When a compost pile is done at home, the content and quality can be more closely controlled resulting in a better product.  Not only do you get the “black gold” that everyone is after; there is also the chance to get the liquid form known as compost tea.  This is just as valuable as the compost at the end but is made during the process and is in a form that is more readily available to the plants, giving them the boost they need to produce a larger harvest.  To capture the compost tea, materials such as grass clippings, leaves, etc… can be placed in a plastic drum with holes on the side so air can get in while it is turned.  When the plant matter breaks down, the tea collects on the bottom of the barrel and can be collected weekly.  Spring garden “waste” can feed summer crops and then provide fully composted material for the fall garden.  Summer garden “waste” in turn will provide for the next spring.

     While this sounds beneficial to the environment and to the garden, it still sounds like a lot of work.  This is where the easiest and in my opinion the best method for composting comes in.  It happens right under our noses and is often taken for granted.  It takes little to no time or work and puts more nutrients into the soil than any other method used.  When a compost pile breaks down plant matter, it releases gases into the air, there is some carbon dioxide but more importantly there is a lot of nitrogen being released.  Nitrogen (N) is the most challenging part of sustaining a garden.  This is one of the reasons gardeners rotate their crops with plants that put nitrogen into the soil such as beans, so next season there is plenty available for the plants that need large quantities to produce abundantly like corn.  All that needs to be done to capture this lost nitrogen is to place the composting material underneath a layer of mulch.  This way, as it breaks down, the soil absorbs most of the nitrogen as water pushes it down.  The soil is also enriched with the compost tea that is produced through the decomposing process.  In addition to this, the mulch also serves as a moisture and weed barrier so little work is needed to aid this process.  In fact, one day of work is needed instead of fifteen days or so with other methods.

     While mulching over a garden bed full of compost takes up space that could be used for growing, chances are that nothing is going to grow in the late fall and winter months so there is little loss to cause any concern.  Two garden beds could be used where one is growing and one is composting, that way there is little time and work for the compost and little to no loss in production.  Mulching will also save you the work of pulling weeds and having to water your compost pile and when the mulching material is pulled back, the ground is extremely rich, fertile, and ready to be easily turned over to give you that light and fluffy garden bed that will cause your crops to explode into production.  This application is not just for garden beds, it can also be used for perennials like shrubs and trees.  Simply taking a few handfuls of yard waste and placing it under the mulched area around the plants that need help in the fall and winter will give it the extra boost it needs when spring comes around.  This can be seen in nature where leaves fall right under the plant providing a cover or mulching and the leaves compost over the fall and winter season.  After this small task is complete, there is little else to do but sit back and let nature do all the work so you can reap the benefits later.