After last week’s somewhat pedestrian thesis on mulch and mulching, we might as well get my obligations, two of them, over in the same month. 

Compost, and its manufacture by the home gardener, is almost a cult, harking back into the days of druids and Stonehenge. Get into any crowd of composters and the talk turns to pseudo-scientific voodoo and mysticism, with some gardeners getting almost into fisticuffs if secrets are disclosed on their compost ingredients. 

Some of these gatherings even get the host or hostess obligatory gifts of a large bag of grass clippings or a smaller one of cantaloupe rinds and coffee grounds.

There is nothing wrong, and a lot right, with compost, but the tail has gotten to wagging the dog with all the hoopla about mystery ingredients and the right ways to build a compost pile. 

There’s really nothing complicated to making good compost. If a person has a couple of years to wait, all it takes is a considerable pile of downed leaves raked into some back corner. In two years’ time, with no additional effort, the leaves will have been reduced to compost … of a sort. 

It won’t be the Real Stuff discussed at dinner parties, but it will be better than nothing, and it will do your plants good, even if it is only part finished compost and part leaf-mold, the predecessor to compost. Used as a top dressing around established plants or placed in the holes where woody plants are to be ensconced, either way it will make a difference. 

With some more effort, and sometimes a lot more, even better compost can be had. An assortment of ingredients produces a line of compost that would do the most avid organic gardener proud. 

For the true connoisseur of real compost, a bin should be prepared. It could be an enclosure of hog wire or shipping pallets turned on their sides and joined in some way or another to make an enclosure. One, say, 12 feet in diameter, will hold a lot of compost. 

Then the building begins. It is a good idea to line the ground with a lot of broken sticks to a depth of about three inches. Upon this foundation the compost pile will be made. 

Then start adding ingredients such as grass clippings, leaves, kitchen waste, animal manure (chicken is best), garden haulm, etc. 

The more varied the ingredients, the less the need for careful layering. Don’t use too much green stuff, like the grass clippings, without adding between layers some brown stuff, i.e. leaves. 

If there is too much green, it will just make silage, a stinky, slimy mess, useless for your soil enrichment. 

To speed up decomposition, broadcast a pound or so of ammonium nitrate over the surface after about each foot of ingredients has been added. If the ingredients of each layer are dry, water the pile slightly to kickstart decomposition. 

A compost pile thus built should start to break down almost immediately in hot weather, a bit slower on cold days. Properly-built compost will let off steam on cold winter days when it is turned over with a pitchfork. This turning is not a necessity, but it will speed things up. 

If you build two piles, one can be used when it is ripe while the other, started at a later date, continues to break down. 

By shifting from one to the other, compost manufacture can go on continuously. 

I prefer the leaf pile method. It is a lot less work.

End of today’s lesson.  

Tune in again in about five years for an update. 


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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