Easy, New Ways to Make Compost for Your Garden

Think outside the bin to make valuable "black gold" for your plants.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Del Boy

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Photo By: Anna Stockton

Plants Love Compost

If you're throwing your kitchen scraps into the garbage and buying compost and fertilizer for your garden, you're wasting money. Those egg shells, banana peels and smushy tomatoes can become a crumbly, brown, nutrient-rich material for growing tasty veggies and beautiful flowers. Author Michelle Balz explains the process and tells gardeners how to think outside the traditional bin in Composting for a New Generation: Latest Techniques for the Bin and Beyond (Cool Springs Press).

Don't Overlook Yard Trimmings

You don't have to limit yourself to kitchen scraps when you're making compost. Balz says those leaves you rake in the fall can become black-gold, and so can grass clippings, extra plants you've pulled, small sticks and even weeds without seeds. (Weed seeds would sprout in your compost.) Think wood chips, sawdust, cornstalks and corn husks, dead flowers and shredded newspapers, too.

Worms Are a Gardener's Friends

Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, is a great way to teach kids about gardening. To get started, make some holes for air and drainage in a box or bin. Next, add some red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida), sold at bait shops and online. As the worms eat food scraps in the bin, they'll excrete castings you can use to amend your soil and fertilize your plants.

Make Leaf Mold

Don't bag your fallen leaves and send them to the landfill. Dump them into a wire bin instead and let them decompose. This DIY bin is 3' tall and 4' in diameter. Once the leaves settle, you can pack in more, and Balz says the bin can eventually hold about as many leaves as you'd stuff in nine paper bags. The resulting compost is called leaf mold, and while it's not as nutrient-rich as regular compost, it's still a valuable soil amendment.

Use Multiple Bins

If you're a serious composter, consider a unit with multiple bins. They're available for sale, or you can make your own from wire and wood (try re-purposing a wooden pallet). Use wire on one side to let air circulate around your scraps and clippings, and add a lid to keep critters out. Aim for at least two bins so you can scoop decomposing materials from one to the other. "Stirring" the pile lets more air reach the materials so they break down faster.

Give Your Compost a Tumble

Compost tumblers also help air reach your decomposing materials, and it's easier to tumble them than to stir with a pitchfork or shovel. Look for a ready-made tumbler or make your own, Balz suggests, from an old pickle barrel. You'll need to add a vent tube in the middle and some holes to let excess moisture drain out. Although you could simply roll your barrel around to tumble the materials, a homemade wooden frame makes the job easier.

Convert a Trash Can

You don't have to spend big bucks for a backyard composter. An ordinary plastic or metal garbage can with a lid will work. Before you sink the can into the ground (which you'll want to do, to keep animals from getting into your garbage), drill some holes into the sides and bottom. They'll let water drain out and allow beneficial organisms and worms to come in. When the compost is ready to use, find a friend to help you lift the can out of the ground and dump it into a wheelbarrow or your garden spot.

Collect Scraps in Your Kitchen

Kitchen compost bins make it easy to save your food scraps without making a special trip outdoors. A bucket or pail with a lid will do, and if countertop space is tight, you can tuck your kitchen collector under a cabinet or inside a pantry. If odors are a problem, opt for a collector with a built-in carbon filtration system to help control them.

Make an African Keyhole Garden

An African keyhole garden is basically a raised bed with an upright cylinder, usually made of wire, in the center. Most keyhole gardens have an opening that lets you walk into the bed and add materials to the cylinder without having to reach over. Flowers or veggies are planted in the bed. As the materials in the cylinder decompose, rain or water from your hose carries nutrients and good organisms from them into the surrounding soil. In this image, a gardener is forgoing the wire and making a cylinder from grapevines.

Compost in a Hole or Trench

Some gardeners can't have compost piles; a homeowner's association, for example, may prohibit them. But if you're allowed to dig, you can bury your food scraps and yard trimmings directly in your garden spot. If you dig a hole, make it 12-24" deep. If you opt for a trench, go about 18" deep. After you fill the hole or trench, top it off with a generous layer of garden soil. Eventually, your buried materials will decompose. Note: Before you dig, call 811, a federally designated number that will put you in touch with your local utility companies. They'll tell you where it's safe to dig, so you won't harm yourself or cause expensive damage to underground lines.

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