How to make a compost heap in your backyard

Mon, 06/30/2014 - 08:05

Homeowners everywhere are taking steps to make their households as sustainable and efficient as possible. From solar panels to heated floor systems, people are upgrading their houses with technology that is not only better for the environment around them, but much more cost effective with financial benefits steadily adding up over time. Using solar energy can reduce a house's dependence on fossil fuels, and radiant heaters can ensure the warmth produced in colder seasons doesn't go to waste with costly leaks or drafts.

However, there's even more people can do to create a self-reliant home. Small outside gardens bring some all-natural food to the kitchen table where families know exactly where it came from and how it was grown. People don't have to be professional farmers, either, to grow some simple fruits and vegetables that can be enjoyed as a fresh snack or a component of dinner. Constructing a compost heap in the backyard is easy and comes with a number of benefits that exceed having the garden, such as reducing the amount of garbage at landfills and recycling organic materials, while giving the soil in a yard a boost for growing plants.

There are a few different methods of building and maintaining a compost heap, all requiring various amounts of attention and care. Whichever option works best depends on the homeowners' lifestyle and their intentions for the compost pile. Here are the basic steps on how to make a simple compost heap:

1. Selecting the perfect spot - People can either buy a compost bin or make their own. Some of the choices available for purchase require much less upkeep with features built into them for the homeowner's ease, but those who wish to build their own can make it out of plastic garbage cans or even assembled wire. Piles that are expected to be very large don't need a container whatsoever as long as the mass is great enough to sustain itself. Heaps should be at least 3 feet long and 3 feet wide.

Regardless, wherever a compost heap is placed needs to be dry and shady within close proximity to a water source. The bins built with clear access to the soil below will benefit from the earthworms and other organisms that assist in decomposition. For those who live in tight communities, the smell of the pile should be considered in consideration to the neighbors. Make sure the compost heap won't disturb anyone once it begins decomposing.

The dirt beneath a compost heap becomes naturally enriched as nutrients drain down through the pile with continued watering, according to Eartheasy. Homeowners that plan on planting more in the future can strategically place their bin in areas where they will one day grow plants, so the soil is prepared in advance.

2. What to add to the heap - This step is important for the people who don't plan on giving their compost regular attention. The materials put into a heap and the order they're added can reduce the amount of work it needs. Compost piles that will largely be left alone should have a foundation layer of small sticks and/or straw to help with draining water and opening up a flow of air, two key requirements for a successful heap.

Compost heaps are a great way to use up the organic matter that accumulates in backyards as well as food scraps from the house. Every pile should be made up of largely two materials: the "brown stuff" and the "green stuff." The brown stuff is anything rich in carbon and generally brown in color, such as dead leaves or other plants, saw dust, pine needles or small twigs.

The green stuff is anything full of nitrogen and protein like unwanted fruits and vegetables from table scraps, cut grass, any leaves that are still green and manure. Never put any meat or bones into the compost heap, because it could draw animals as well as contaminate the pile.

People need to find the right balance between the green and brown stuff. Usually the best proportions are two-thirds brown and one-third green, with more carbon than nitrogen. If homeowners put too much nitrogen in the heap, the compost will decompose much more slowly.

Every compost heap should be topped off with a thin layer of garden soil to contain heat, moisture and foul odors.

3. Maintaining your compost until it's ready - While people don't have to pay too much attention to their compost heap as nature does its work, it does require general maintenance. The key to a successful pile is keeping it moist, but not wet, and mixing it up every once in a while. Keep the heap covered to ensure it isn't over-watered from the rain, but make sure to lightly water it from time to time to keep it damp.

As the pile begins to break down, the material at the center will be the first to do so. With a pitch fork or shovel, mix up the interior to move the materials on the sides into the middle. If steam seeps out during mixing, that only means everything is decaying appropriately. The pile needs to retain as much heat as possible to aid in the process, so by moving everything from the edges closer to the center, it becomes better insulated. The heat also helps kill any weed seeds that may have made their way inside and could grow in your garden when you use the compost.

Turning the compost every now and then also adds oxygen to it, a necessary component for decomposition.

The compost heap could be ready anytime from two months to two years, depending on its size and if the proper conditions were met. Homeowners can tell if their pile is ready when they see a dark brown material accumulated at the center or bottom called humus. This is the final product of the compost heap which is rich in nutrients for all plants in a garden. Humus shouldn't be used as a replacement for dirt, only an additive to improve the quality of the soil.

After the first harvest of humus, people should simply add more layers to the mixture and keep the process and its benefits going.