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Mark Cullen on Starting a Compost Pile
by Mark Cullen
November 9, 1999

If you haven't yet been a gardener who composts, this is the time to start. You've probably got a pretty good idea that I think organic material is vital for the success of your garden, whether your soil is sticky clay, sifting sand, or perfect loam. The best way to get organic material into your garden is by composting vegetable mater, kitchen scraps, and garden wastes to produce humus. You'll be helping not only your garden but also the garbage and landfill problem.

Composting is similar to what happens on the forest floor. Micro-organisms and earth worms decompose, or break down, organic material; the result is a crumbly dark mixture full of good things for your garden. But because you're taking a natural process and speeding it up, you have to be aware of the other elements of composting that you're trying to control: air and moisture. When these elements are in proper balance, you'll be able to produce compost on a constant basis and more quickly than it occurs in nature.

You can buy a bin for composting, or construct one yourself. In fact, a bin isn't strictly necessary, but in urban gardens, a bin can be set tidily out of the way.

Put you bin in a sunny spot if possible, the heat from the sun will help the micro-organisms do their work. Then all you have to do is start adding your wastes - fruit and vegetable scraps, disease free garden prunings, lawn clippings, etc. Try to keep the ingredients mixed up; for example, if you're adding several inches of grass clippings or leaves, layer them with soil from your garden, other vegetable matter - even lint from your dryer!

Material that's been chopped up will decompose more quickly than larger pieces, so if you have a lot of broccoli stalks or cauliflower leaves, for instance, just chop them into pieces about the size of a walnut.

Oxygen is very important to the composting process. About once a week or so, give your compost pile a stir or turn it over now and then to be sure sufficient oxygen is available.

Another part of the decomposting process is water. It your bin is covered, thus preventing rain from providing moisture, add a bit of water every so often. The materials in your compost should be as moist as a squeezed sponge, not dripping, but not dry either.

Once your bin is working, or 'cooking' , you will start to get finished compost - humus - in about three months. Depending on the style of bin you have, you might continually remove the compost from the bottom of the bin, or you might leave it alone until the bin is full and then start another pile beside it.

For more on Composting and Gardening from Mark Cullen, visit or Composting Council at

by Mark Cullen of Weall and Cullen

(excerpt from

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