How do I use my compost?
February 7, 2013 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I have a 3-year old, ~28 cubic ft. compost pile in my backyard that is contained in an uncovered chicken-wire cylinder. I do not touch it aside from adding compostable material to it, but I haven't added anything for several months. What I can see on the top of the pile is not broken down. I don't know anything about using compost in gardens other than what I've Googled, and it all seems to be tailored for people who put way more effort into their compost than I do. What do I need to do to get it ready to put into my raised-bed vegetable garden this spring, and how, specifically, do I actually use it in my garden? Should I mix it in with a particular kind of soil, or should I put a layer of compost and a layer of something else? I have a shovel and some other very basic gardening supplies, but I don't have a pitchfork, and I cannot afford additional equipment like a tumbler. I've seen this previous question.
posted by quiet coyote to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Given your description, I would take off the top few inches and take a look at what else is there. What you are looking for is something that essentially looks like soil, with no recognizable pieces of anything in it, other than maybe some sticks. If you see that, you can remove it from the pile and just turn some into the top several inches of your bed. No special anything required.

Again, given your description, I would guess that even if you turned it now so that the recognizable scraps were inside the pile, they would not be broken down by spring, so I would just take them off and use them as the bottom of your new pile.
posted by OmieWise at 7:53 AM on February 7, 2013

If you are asking how to do things in the future: compost requires no special equipment. All you need is "green" material (like non-animal chicken scraps, or garden clippings) and "brown" material (like shredded leaves, or straw) mixed or layered together in roughly equal proportions. Turn the pile with your shovel or a fork once every couple of weeks, and you will have compost after several months.
posted by OmieWise at 7:56 AM on February 7, 2013

The anaerobic bacteria are the ones that make compost stinky and slimy--this is what happens when you leave a pile of grass or leaves or compost in a heap. The aerobic bacteria are the ones you want to encourage to break down the compost. This means you must keep it moist and turn it over regularly to let air in. Then the compost will break down quickly and will have almost no odor. A bit of nitrogen fertilizer will help. You should also have a screen small enough that you don't encourage rodents, raccoons, etc.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:05 AM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I try to keep mine (also a chicken-wire cage) turned over as much as possible to avoid having un-composted material along the sides and on the top layer. (I turn ours whenever I bring out a bucket of veg scraps from the house.) I use an old pitchfork for this - I really recommend picking one up if you want to keep composting this way the coming summer too (you can often get cheap yard & garden tools at garage sales or on craigslist - you definitely don't have to drop $30 at Home Depot for a shiny new pitchfork).

I wouldn't worry about not using a tumbler. I think my chicken-wire bin compost looks as good as others' tumbler compost I have seen, personally. We get a lot of earthworms in ours, which I take as a good sign. The only sort-of downside I have is that local deer sometimes use our compost pile as a breakfast bar and nose out the recent scraps.

For your pile this year... I'd remove the topmost un-composted layer(s) and whenever there's a thaw start to turn over what's left as thoroughly as you can, maybe once a week, until you want to use it. It should be dark and soil-like to use in your garden. Believe it or not, some composting will actually happen even during the cold months because of the heat the organic process makes within the pile. Good luck!
posted by aught at 8:08 AM on February 7, 2013

After three years, all but the outer layer should be done. Just scrape that part off and put it in your new pile. For the part that's done, you don't need to do anything special to use it in your garden. If you have your beds already made, you can just spread the compost on top and plant right in it. Eventually the earthworms, frost/heave cycle, and other natural forces will incorporate it into the soil. You can dig it in if you want, but it's totally unnecessary.

If it has big chunks and sticks in it (mine always does), you may need to sift it. For this, you can get any kind of wooden frame--make it, salvage it, doesn't matter--and staple a piece of hardware cloth (it's super cheap, you can buy it by the foot off a roll at the hardware or garden store) over it. Then place the frame over some kind of big container (a wheelbarrow is ideal but I know you're on a budget so use whatever you've got), shovel the compost onto it, and shake it through. You may need to kind of work it a bit to push it through, but you'll end up with gorgeous black gold. Then just spread it on top of your beds.
posted by HotToddy at 8:17 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

On using it: You can just mix the compost into the top couple inches of soil or add some to the hole when you plant something. If you have an area of your garden that's particularly sandy or clayey, you can focus on adding it to those places, or places where you grew heavy feeders like corn, but you basically can't do it wrong. You can add compost to potted plants, as well, either as a topdressing or mixing a bit in the loose soil at the top or adding it when you re-pot.

Having a pile in the backyard that is mostly ignored is a totally fine way to make compost. If it seems slimy or too wet, mix in more leaves or grass clippings or even shredded paper. If it's too dry and not decomposing, mix in more kitchen scraps / herbaceous stuff. It may be easiest to pull the chicken wire off your pile, sort through it, and then pile up / shovel the leftovers back into a mound and put the chicken wire back around it vs. leaving the chicken wire in place.
posted by momus_window at 8:46 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Very basically, you just use the stuff from the bottom of the pile. It'll look and smell just like regular soil.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:40 AM on February 7, 2013

Compost is pretty straightforward. You've been doing lazy man's compost and it works, just slower than actively composting, which includes turning, monitoring the mix, even making it warm enough to melt winter snow.
posted by dhartung at 7:17 PM on February 7, 2013

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