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compost bins by tobo on FlickrSpring has finally arrived and preparations for the spring planting season have begun. While you're cleaning out your flower beds or preparing your vegetable garden this year, why not commit a few hours to creating a compost pile in your backyard?

Why compost?

Some experts estimate that food waste accounts for 20 to 30 percent of garbage in landfills. Each time you scrape your plate into the wastebasket or garbage disposal, you're throwing valuable nutrients away, nutrients your outdoor plants need.

Composting creates a dark brown, crumbly material. Your garden loves compost for several reason -- it's full of food your plants desire, it's chemical-free, and helps the soil retain moisture. Though it can take years for soil to rebuild lost nutrients on its own, amending the soil with compost speeds up that process.

Get started on your own compost bin after the break.

Tools

The number of tools you need for your compost pile will depend on its size and how you intend to maintain it. At a minimum, however, you'll need:
  • a pitchfork for turning or a compost turner
  • garden hose or watering can
  • pruners, or something to cut waste down when necessary
  • a compost thermometer
  • a covered container for collecting food scraps from your kitchen (Set this near your back door to reduce your trips out to the compost pile.)
Earth 911 has more ideas for cool composting tools.

Location, location, location

Location is very important when planning a compost pile or bin. Though a pile of organic matter will eventually decompose no matter where you place it, the point here is to speed the process up. The very first step is to find out if your local government has any ordinances about the placement of compost bins. After that, find a place in your yard that is:
  • on level ground
  • has good drainage
  • gets about a half day's sun
  • protected from high winds
  • away from trees, if possible
You'll also want to find a location that is convenient for you to access and away from family activities and pet areas.

Pile or bin: It's a matter of opinion

Organic materials care not whether they're placed in an ungainly heap or an expensive, state-of-the-art compost bin. They'll decompose one way or the other. But because your compost pile requires some human effort -- regular turning, occasional watering, as well as removal of the finished compost -- then you may prefer one over the other.

Compost bins are neater and less of an eyesore, something to consider if you have close neighbors. They also make turning easy, and increase the heat inside your compost pile which will speed decomposition. A compost bin may be a good option if you don't have a suitable place in your yard for a pile. On the other hand, purchasing one can be expensive and aren't strictly necessary.

If you build your own compost bin or just create a compost pile, you can camouflage it with tall flowers, which will love their new, nutrient-rich home. Check out Instructables for instructions on how to make a mini portable compost bin.

Go to town with green and brown

A compost pile gets "fed" with two kinds of organic materials, green and brown. The brown materials provide carbon, an energy source to the bacteria and microorganisms who decompose the materials, while the green materials provide nitrogen. Finding a balance between these two will improve the "heat" of your pile and prevent problems from occurring.

Green materials include items such as:
  • plant matter from your garden
  • green grass clippings
  • pulled weeds
  • green table waste, such as fruit and vegetable peelings (Cover food scraps with soil to prevent drawing pests.)
  • coffee grounds and tea bags
Brown materials include things like:
  • dead leaves
  • dead, dry grass clippings
  • plants that have wilted and gone brown
  • pine needles
  • twigs (shredded)
  • sawdust (from wood that has not been chemically treated)
  • shredded paper
  • egg shells
Items that should not be used in a compost pile include:
  • meat or bone scraps
  • fish
  • dog or cat waste
  • coal ash
  • leaves from magnolia, oak, holly, black walnut, and poison ivy
  • grease
For more ideas about what can go into your compost pile, check out Anna's 163 items to add to your compost.

Getting started

The ideal size for a compost pile is no smaller than 3 x 3 x 3. Larger piles increase surface area, but may hold on to too much water. Because compost piles require turning, consider how much you can manage when planning the size of your heap.

Get your compost pile off on the right foot by using a layering technique. Compost piles should be started on bare ground to improve air circulation and to allow microbes from the earth access to the pile. First, create a 6-8 inch layer of organic materials -- a mixture of your "greens" and "browns" -- making sure that there are plenty of coarser materials to ensure good air circulation

Next, add a thin layer of fertilizer. Animal manure (not cat or dog) can be used, or you can use bloodmeal, 1 to 2 cups per 25 square feet of surface area.

Finally, add a third layer of plain garden soil to introduce microbes to your pile. (As with most items you add to your compost heap, soil should not have been recently treated with chemicals.)

Lightly water each layer as you go, and continue until you reach the top of your bin or run out of material. The ideal temperature for decomposition is 90 to 135 degrees, so if your pile appears to be growing too hot or too cold, take steps to remedy the situation.

Now what?

As the new, proud owner of a compost pile, you have two options. You can either wait patiently for 3 to 4 months for your rewards (compost). This option is less labor-intensive, requiring that you turn the pile at 5 to 6 weeks and monitor the temperature of your pile on a regular basis.

Or, you can continue adding fresh material to your compost pile. This requires more frequent turning, watering, and temperature monitoring. Though this method is more work, it makes more regular use of the scraps leftover from meals and yardwork (for those who are composting for the benefits of recycling), and will produce an ongoing supply of compost.

Over the winter, many people let their compost bins become inactive. If you'd like to keep yours fired up all winter long, read more about winter composting here.

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