Compost is food for the soil

Lyndall Noyes-Brownell
Special to Black Mountain News

Growing up, I was surrounded by people with “green thumbs”. That's right, generations of gardeners. Their passion for gardening quickly turned into my obsession, I mean hobby. 

Even though they all had different approaches to taking care of their garden, all agreed that composting was key to improving the soil and plants.

Basically, composting is the recycling of organic waste such as kitchen scraps, shredded paper, and yard clippings that breaks down into rich soil that helps feed the garden.

It's an easy way to be kind to the environment. Kitchen scraps can easily be collected by keeping a small covered bucket under your sink and when full, empty it into your compost pile.

Now before we dive into the details of composting; let's get this out in the open. Living in bear country, you have probably noticed that they are curious creatures and get into everything. Bears like to visit our compost pile.

The cubs walk on top of the open wooden bin structure just like kids do on a jungle gym and sometimes they dig into the pile (aerating it which needs to be done anyways).

But easily, the best way to keep them from eating the vegetable scraps is to cut them up in small pieces and cover them with brown leaves, and other carbon materials.

Let's get started.

Take a walk around your yard to find an area that's shaded, level, and well drained.  Ideally, close to the house to minimize your steps and easily accessible to water.

There are many types of compost structures, so find the one that makes sense for your gardening lifestyle. It could be as simple as an open pile, wire cylinder, a manufactured plastic bin, or a 3 wooden bin system. We, that is my husband, put together a 3 wooden bin system which works well for us. This allows me to compost in stages, new material, partly decomposed material, and nearly finished compost.

What goes into making compost?

There are five key elements: brown & green materials, soil microorganisms, air, and water. That's it.

Carbon-rich materials or “browns” are typically dry, brittle materials like fall leaves, twigs, shredded paper (non-glossy paper), straw, and other items. The brown materials are food sources for the microorganisms that break down the contents of the compost pile. This material brings bulk to the compost pile which allows air to filter through it.

Nitrogen-rich materials or “greens” are typically moist materials like coffee grounds,

eggshells, fruit peals, grass clippings, and veggie waste. The green materials tend to heat up the compost pile which allows the microorganisms to grow and multiply.

When starting a compost pile, think of lasagna and all those repetitive layers that goes into making that delicious dish. Basically, you use the same layering method for composting. For the base, use small twigs a couple of inches deep to bring in air and structure.

Layer 4 - 5 inches of carbon-rich materials, put in a layer of soil as that will introduce worms and microorganisms, and water it down. Next add 2 - 3 inches of nitrogen-rich materials, layer in some soil, and water it down.

Repeat until you build the pile to 3 - 4 feet high and at least 3 feet wide so it can retain heat. Top it all off with 5 inches of carbon-rich materials to help prevent pests and odors. As time moves on, it will break down into a smaller pile.

A couple of tips: 

To have the green and brown materials decompose faster, cut them into small pieces. For fall leaves, attach a mulching bag to your mower to capture the leaves. It's also important not to add dairy products, bones, diseased or insect-infested plants, meat, pet manure, or weeds that go to seed.

Like us, the compost pile needs air and water too. By turning the compost pile regularly it will allow air in so it breaks down the material faster. If you have a tumbler system, just give it a spin a few times a week. For a bin or open pile system, use a garden fork or shovel, and turn it once a week. The pile needs to be evenly moist, like a well wrung-out sponge.

Just like life, too much of this and too little of that can make a difference. If the pile gets too soggy or not breaking down much, then add more carbon-rich items like fall leaves or shredded newspaper. If the pile smells like vinegar or rotten eggs, then turn the pile and add leaves and straw.

When is it done?

Finished compost looks like rich soil and has an earthy aroma. When it's crumbly and resembles soil more than debris, it's time to sift out the large pieces that have not yet decomposed, and start using your compost. It can be added to your gardens at anytime, either by turning it into the soil, used as mulch, or top dressed around established plants. The more you add to your garden the healthier it will be! Happy Gardening.

Lyndall Noyes-Brownell proudly serves as co-chair for Black Mountain Beautification Committee, an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer of Buncombe County and chair of Black Mountain Blooms Seed Lending Library. She is the webmaster for and cares for plant containers in downtown Black Mountain.