Every year I start out with good composting intentions, and every year my compost heaps end up looking like someone dumped a lot of leaves and twigs and dead plants all over a queen-sized bed. Meanwhile, my next-door neighbor maintains three beautifully designed compost heaps, with removable lattice-work wooden panels. I can hear Russ’ chipper-shredder on Saturday afternoons, chewing up branches and other yard waste to feed his compost piles. One early spring morning, he even skipped into my yard, compost thermometer (yes, a compost thermometer) in hand, bragging about how high the internal temperature of the heaps had reached.

Handful of compost

Rich compost is “black gold” that fertilizes the soil with a wide range of nutrients. It also improves soil structure and attracts earthworms and beneficial microbes

Photo Credit: Richard Villadon/fotolia.com

Turning compost bin

This compost bin is generously sized to allow for plenty of yard waste. Just remember that the larger the pile, the harder it is to turn.

Photo Credit: Dennis Oblander/fotolia.com

Garbage scraps for compost

The cool thing about a compost heap is that it’s an environmentally friendly garbage can for many types of yard and kitchen waste.

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This year, I resolve to be more like Russ.

He does what’s called “hot composting” – that is, he carefully manages his compost piles so that they break down rapidly, in just a few months. I normally do “cold composting,” mainly piling it all up and letting nature do its work over a period of a couple of years.

Not only is hot composting faster (it really handles the onslaught of autumn leaves and other yard waste), it also tends to kill weed seeds and disease pathogens so you don’t spread them all over your garden along with the compost. (Which explains my bumper crop of tomatoes in my flower bed each year.)

So here’s how I’m going to “Russ-ify” myself:

  • I’ll add more compost bins. My avid gardener stepfather had six compost heaps behind his garden shed to handle all his yard waste. My garden is even bigger, and I have only three. I vow to add three more bins to handle more leaves and trimmings.
  • I’ll swear off adding sticks and branches to my compost pile. Unlike leaves, grass clippings and banana peels, these take a long time to break down. Instead, I’m going to start a stick/brush pile alongside my compost heap and have it hauled away once a year. (People who own a wooded area can simply make a permanent brush pile among their trees.) Or maybe I can even sweet-talk Russ into doing a little additional chipping and shredding for a plate or two of cookies…
  • I’ll be more diligent about layering my compost pile. Normally, I just pitch it all in. But to have a hot compost pile, you need to layer dry brown materials (such as raked autumn leaves, dried up plant parts after a frost, etc.) with juicy green materials (grass clippings, fresh weeds, etc.). The tricky part is that you tend to have all brown materials in the fall and all green materials in the summer. So I’ll have to stockpile a few garbage bags of leaves in or behind my garage to add to the pile during the summer months.
  • I’ll turn my compost pile. In the spring and summer, when temperatures heat up, so does the compost heap. Turning the piles every couple of weeks speeds up the process. Here’s the key point: Don’t make your heaps so large that they’re impossible to turn. I tend to fill my heaps to “overflowing,” which makes them 3-4 feet high! I need to keep them at 2-3 feet so I can actually turn them.

An alternative idea I’m working on to get me started on my hot-composting kick is to have just one or two “active” compost piles. I can start by carefully layering and turning these, while letting the others decompose through cold composting. Then, when I find my Russ-like rhythm, I can starting hot composting the other piles.

I definitely have my work cut out for me. But composting intelligently will help me take my garden to the next level: Not only will my landscape be neater and more attractive, I’m sure to have a better supply of dark, rich compost – that magical stuff garden geeks like me rightly call black gold!