Composting is the ultimate win-win-win for gardeners.
It is recycling at its most basic, turning yard and kitchen waste into rich, organic planting material. It saves money on fertilizer and pesticides. It keeps earthworms working and off the street.
There are several types of composting that involve varying degrees of commitment. Aerobic, which uses air to compost, is quick, but high maintenance because your heap needs frequent turning; anaerobic, both low-maintenance and very slow, is done without air and involves letting waste sit undisturbed for years; vermicomposting employs red worms, bacteria and insects to break down matter (medium maintenance and speed).
But, as Brett L. Markham points out in his excellent "The Mini Farming Guide to Composting" (Skyhorse Publishing), nature is on your side: No matter which method you choose, it's nearly impossible to screw this up. "Nature loves compost," he writes, "and will turn anything that was once alive (or produced by something living) into compost all by itself."
So let's set up an aerobic composting bin.
Degree of difficulty: Easy-medium.
Tools needed: chicken wire, posts, lawn mower, leaf grinder, shovel, spade, pitchfork, length of rebar, thermometer
What you need: Markham recommends chicken-wire bins: four posts (six is better, so you can have two side-by-side bins) and 48-inch-high chicken wire. Why two bins? One for new material, and the other for compost that's farther along in the decomposition process.
Find a location: Practically speaking, try to set up near the garden where you'll be spreading your compost. Moving vast amounts across your property will wear you out. In their book "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide" (Storey), Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin note that you may have to strike a balance: Compost heaps do better in shade, but gardens are in the sun.
What's in? What's out? For a basic aerobic compost heap, grass clippings, leaves (run them through a leaf grinder, if you can, to reduce their size and speed up the process), twigs and other plant materials are all welcome. Indoor fodder can include coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit and vegetable scraps, even freezer-burned vegetables. No meats, no fats. Bones, though, if thoroughly cooked, are fine (they provide calcium and phosphorous). But bury them at least 3 inches down.
Critters: Worms and insects help break down the compost material. Other garden-helpful insects, such as crickets, take refuge in the compost heap. If you add bones and they get exposed, you may have to fend off raccoons (or, more likely, the neighbor's poodle). The chicken wire should be a sufficient deterrent.
Maintenance: When starting fresh, you may want to buy a bag of commercial compost — its bacteria and other microorganisms are already cranked up — and toss it in to get your bin percolating. Once you're up and running, add some of your own mature compost to your second bin. Turn your material every couple of days. To get air into the mix — this is aerobic composting, remember — drive a short length of rebar into the pile and wiggle it around to make a hole and promote air penetration. Do this at several points. Monitor the temperature. As the decomposition process accelerates, the temperature will rise. (Specially made thermometers are sold at garden centers.) If the temp gets above 150 degrees, the process can slow down or stop. Frequent mixing will prevent that from happening.
Moisture is a must for successful compost. For aerobic, the material should feel damp and clump together, but not be so wet that water can be squeezed out. If your aerobic pile is too dry, turn it and add water.
When is it ready? Markham says that immature compost produces chemicals that prevent germination. When you see earthworms thriving in your pile and weeds are starting to sprout, your compost is ready.