Question: Hi Martha, Does compost really help my garden? How do I start?
Martha Stewart: Compost is one of the best ways to increase your garden’s growing power. It's not hard once you get started, so I've compiled some of my most useful tips for you. Producing it yourself will save you money and provide a way to utilize all those kitchen scraps and gardening cast-offs. Plus, having an endless supply of “black gold” will do your plants (and the planet) a tremendous amount of good.
For as long as I can remember, composting has been a part of my life. When I was a child, my family kept a small bucket next to the kitchen sink where food scraps were deposited. The bucket was emptied every day onto the compost heap at the back of our yard. My dad talked with excitement about the transformation of these scraps into “black gold,” a substance he said would revitalize our garden, adding nutrients back to the soil.
Over the years I have developed an adaptable system of composting that will keep your garden – whether large or small – thriving. Even if you have a small space, or aren’t ready to home compost yet, you can purchase compost, which supports organic waste recycling initiatives. But if you’re ready to compost, and you have food scraps and a pitchfork, you’re halfway there!
What Compost Is (and What it Is not)
Compost is the result of organic matter (plant parts and food scraps) decomposing with the aid of water, oxygen, invertebrate organisms (earth worms, slugs, sow bugs), and beneficial microorganisms (fungi and bacteria). Crumbly, dark-brown finished compost is not soil, though it may resemble it; nor is it fertilizer. It is a soil amendment that can be incorporated into garden soil to help it retain moisture and nutrients.
What to Compost
At my farm in Bedford, almost nothing goes to waste. Successful composting depends on the right combination of “green” and “brown” material. The greens (food scraps, lawn cuttings) provide nitrogen, while the browns (healthy dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard) provide carbon. To create optimal conditions for decomposition, gather twice as much brown material as green.
These photos show which materials are appropriate.
Food Scraps (GREEN)
Fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggshells, cooked pasta and rice, coffee grounds and used filters, and loose tea and tea bags can all be added to the pile. Do not compost meat, fish, bones, dairy, oils, or fatty foods (such as peanut butter) with added fats or oils, since these materials will attract pests.
Paper, Lint, and Hay (BROWN)
Newspaper, wood chips, and hay make good brown matter when dry leaves are in short supply. Shred newspaper so it does not form a mat. Do not compost glossy or colored paper.
A handful (or shovelful, depending on the size of your bin) of garden soil in the middle of the pile promotes the microorganisms that are necessary for decomposition.
Garden Waste (GREEN)
Flowers, leaves, grass clippings, and weeds are great candidates for the compost pile. Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All-Purpose Plant Food Granules can be used to supplement the green ingredients. Do not compost weeds bearing seeds, or diseased or pest-ridden foliage.
DRY LEAVES (BROWN)
Autumn leaves are the cheapest, most plentiful form of carbon for composting. Many composters stockpile them to use through winter, and you can also use hay.
Tip: Do not compost black-walnut tree twigs and leaves. They release a toxic chemical called juglone that will compromise the compost pile.
WAYS TO COMPOST
While you can certainly pile up materials on the ground and let nature take its course, many composters prefer to maintain the compost in a bin instead.
Single bins: These simple, compact solutions are easy to find and come in a range of sizes to suit most any need.
Three-bin system: Active gardeners might want to consider this classic set up: one pile to add to, one pile that is decomposing and one pile that is finished for use in your garden. These systems are readily available for purchase, or you can build your own.
10 Steps to Start and Maintain Your Compost Pile from the Ground Up
1. FIND A PROPER LOCATION
You will need a spot with good drainage and at least partial sunlight. Full sun will require more frequent watering; full shade slows decomposition. The bin should be convenient to a water source, but out of harm’s way from pets (dogs especially find the smell of decomposing matter irresistible.)
2. BUILD THE BASE WITH BROWN
Begin your pile with an airy layer of carbon matter, ideally a loose pile of fallen leaves for better circulation. If you do not have dry leaves or cardboard on hand, wood chips can be used to ensure you have adequate carbon in your blend and can help eliminate odors. Aim for about six inches of brown matter.
3. ADD GREEN, THEN MORE BROWN
Add a few inches of green matter. Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All-Purpose Plant Food Granules can be used to supplement the green ingredients and ensure your compost mixture contains adequate nitrogen to initiate the composting process. Then, top with twice as much brown matter.
4. SPRINKLE IN SOIL
A scoop (or shovelful, depending on the size of your pile) of garden soil in the pile promotes necessary microorganisms.
5. REPEAT BROWN AND GREEN LAYERS
Continue layering browns and greens in a 2-to-1 ratio, ending with a layer of brown. Small pieces decompose faster, so consider cutting down any large ones. Do not leave food scraps exposed.
6. KEEP IT MOIST
Your pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge: moist but not drippy. Too much or too little water can slow down or even stop the composting process. Check often; water the pile with a hose when it’s dry or cover with a tarp during heavy rain, as necessary.
7. TURN AND REPEAT
After a week, you’ll notice the pile heat up. Turn it with a pitchfork, mixing the layers. As the pile continues to “cook” and reduce, turn the pile every few days, and keep adding more layers, ending with brown. (If your compost seems like it isn't doing anything, you may need to add more water and/or green ingredients.) Turning provides oxygen for the microorganisms and facilitates rapid, even decomposition. The more frequently you turn, the sooner the compost will be ready.
8. CORRECTING COMPOST THAT IS WET AND SMELLY
If compost is slimy or overly odorous, you may be adding too much water, or the recipe contains an excessive number of green materials. This can be fixed by adding more brown ingredients of a smaller, uniform particle size such as sawdust, paper, brown leaves, and wood chips. These are all excellent materials to help control odors in the compost pile and restore the ideal brown-to-green ratio.
9. CORRECTING COMPOST THAT IS DRY AND DUSTY
If the compost is too dry and/or dusty, the quality of the brown ingredient can also be key. Large branches and sticks may not compost as readily as paper or wood chips that have a smaller, more uniform particle size. If the pile is dry, dusty, and isn’t heating up, you should add more green ingredients, and possibly water, to get the composting process started. You can also try supplementing with Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All-Purpose Plant Food Granules to ensure your compost mixture contains adequate nitrogen to initiate the composting process
10. HOW TO USE WHEN READY
Once the compost is dark brown, free of recognizable ingredients, and has no offensive smell, it’s ready. Depending on ingredients and conditions, your compost will be done six months to a year after you start the pile. When ready, compost can be amended into soil in early spring, with new plantings, and adding compost in the fall will improve your soil for the following spring. For new gardens, we recommended 2-3 inches in the first year, with an additional one-inch application every other year thereafter. You can also use compost as a mulch or top dressing or rake it directly on lawn for greener grass.
Below: as the composted materials age over time, each recognizable plant piece blends into consistently fine tilth, with a uniform dark color and a rich texture like crumbled chocolate cake.
Compost First Season
Compost Second Season
Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.