Compost Tips for Great Gardening

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Tompkins Weekly – June 14, 2010
By Melissa Doak

Lasagna Composting Method Demo By Randy & KaitlinComposting and gardening go hand-in-hand. Not only does a compost pile serve as a convenient place to dump garden waste, but the finished compost has a myriad of uses in the garden. Compost can be mixed into new planting beds to help improve compacted, clay soil; used as mulch around trees or shrubs; or even made into a tea that some gardeners use to feed houseplants or spray on their plants to prevent fungal diseases. Gardeners rarely can get enough of the rich, crumbly, humus-rich “black gold” that results from letting yard wastes and food scraps cook in a pile. But how to get to that gardener’s nirvana?

First, decide how you want to compost. Fancy compost bins can set you back a couple hundred dollars – but you can go as low-tech (and free) as throwing your yard-waste in a pile behind your shed. Tompkins County residents can pick up a compost bin made out of recycled black plastic from Tompkins County Solid Waste for $40; alternately, you can set up a wire cylinder bin by tying together the ends of a 13’ by 3’ length of welded wire fencing. A 1” by 2” mesh size works well and some hardware stores sell welded wire by the foot. In my household, we use completely enclosed bins for food scraps and wire bins for yard and garden waste. Other effective compost systems are available for viewing at the compost demonstration sites at Cooperative Extension on Willow Avenue, or at the Ithaca Community Gardens.

Compost in a location that is conveniently located and close to a water source, where it will get some sun and some shade. Unless you are using a compost tumbler (they work differently), start out by crisscrossing small branches at the bottom to allow good air circulation. Then layer in “browns” – dried leaves, straw, even shredded paper – with the sides higher than the middle (bowl shape). Next, add a thin layer of “greens” – grass clippings, weeds, and food waste. Cover with another layer of browns (to discourage vermin from being attracted to your pile) and water until the pile has the moisture level of a damp sponge. Continue layering greens and browns until you’ve filled your composter to the top. Turn it once or twice if you want faster and more uniform compost and check the results in about a year.

Certain materials are particularly good for home compost. If you have access to chicken, cow or horse manure, these nitrogen-rich sources can really heat up your pile. Other great “greens” are food scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and oil), weeds, and spent plants and flowers. Fallen leaves make a great “brown,” as do straw and shredded paper. Saw dust, peat moss, and small amounts of pine needles will also work in a pinch.

Certain materials must be avoided. Home compost piles do not get sufficiently hot to decompose meat or dairy products or large amounts of cooking oil. These food wastes should go in the garbage, not the compost pile. Also, do not add diseased plant material or weeds that have gone to seed to your pile – you’ll risk spreading them everywhere you use your finished compost.

Would you like to know more?

The Master Composters from Cooperative Extension run a free “Compost with Confidence” class from Noon – 1pm on the last Saturday of each month from June through October. Meet at the Ithaca Community Gardens near the Ithaca Farmer’s Market. No registration is required. For more info, visit us online: or contact Liz Falk at or 272-2292×124.

Good luck with your composting and your gardening!

Melissa Doak is a Tompkins County Master Composter from the class of 2009. The Compost Education Program at Tompkins County Cooperative Extension is funded by the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division.

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