Compost for Backyard Gardeners

Compost is the most important amendment to an organic garden.  Urban homesteaders can make their own compost or buy it by the yard.  While buying may be a necessity at the start of building new garden beds.  Over time it is wise to create a compost pile to make as much as possible on site.  Composting is a great way to keep carbon and nitrogen on-site versus being trucked off to who knows where. 

There are several methods for composting.  It is a good idea to try different methods to find what works best in your context.  Different types of materials are readily available for different urban homesteaders and will lend themselves to specific composting techniques. Creating quality compost at home requires the right combination of materials and a few tools to move the material.

Home Made Compost

Home-made compost is as simple as throwing things on the ground and letting them rot.  On the other hand, it can be a complicated endeavor requiring lots of supplies and even thermometers for monitoring the temperature.  Most urban homesteaders end up somewhere in the middle between a very simple compost process and one that is more structured.  

In order to create a decent end product compost, it is important to do a few basic things.  First, identify a location to build your compost pile so that it can be at a minimum of 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep by 3 feet high.  A bigger pile will work even better.  Second, add equal parts of carbon sources known as browns in the compost world and nitrogens referred to as greens.  Third, turn the pile with a pitchfork or garden fork every few days so that all parts of the pile spend some time on the inside heating up.  Lastly, wait long enough for the pile to resemble compost and the bits and pieces are indiscernible from what they were at the start.

The simplest method for composting at home is to just chop and drop to compost in place.  After cutting a branch or part of a plant just place it directly on the ground and it will break down and get incorporated into the surface layer of the soil.  This is the easiest method to add organic material over time to a food forest.

Store-Bought Bag Compost

Store-bought compost comes in all types of materials and qualities.  The stuff that is sold in plastic bags usually in 1 or 2 cubic feet per bag can be good in a pinch when needing to top off a raised garden bed.  These bagged composts can be good quality and come from 100% organic farm sources, but you will pay up for the premium stuff.  The lower-grade materials may not even be worth it. Especially, if they are unjust composted wood chips and steer manure from an unknown source.  

Compost Delivery

Ultimately, if you are filling in a large space or have several hundred square feet or more of garden space you will want a compost delivery.  Getting bags is expensive to fill in a two-inch layer of compost, it is going to be more economical to purchase by the yard.  Search for compost or mulch companies in your local area and see what kinds of options are available.  Most will offer different types of compost from mushroom compost to steer manure compost and more variations.  Getting a compost delivery will have two charges, you will pay for the material and usually a delivery fee so it is really important to get all that you need in a single drop.  No dig gardeners like to add a layer of compost every year to the in-ground garden beds as mulch.

Compost Teas

Compost teas have become a very popular way of fertilizing your plants. These teas are essentially water with plant material, animal manure, or other nutrients added to the water.  Then allowed to break down in the water for a period of time releasing the nutrients in the water.  Consequently, this cultivates the bacteria that plants and soil microbiology love to feed on.  Depending on the types of plants that are placed in the tea, it is possible to make different brews to add specific nutrients back into the food forest garden.

Aerobic and Anaerobic Teas

There are two kinds of composted teas.  First, aerobic teas require an aerator to keep the water oxygenated.  Second, anaerobic teas, that are plant materials allowed to sit in the water and just ferment.  As with anything, there are different schools of thought on whether it’s even ok to use anaerobic compost teas or not.  In my experience plants love them both and there is not a noticeable difference, plants love compost tea whether it is aerobic or anaerobic.  Always dilute your compost tea with regular water before applying it to your plants.

Composting for Urban Homesteads

Composting should be a regular activity at every urban homestead.  It may be hard to make all the compost that is needed on-site, but by actively composting you are reducing waste streams and keeping more materials on site.  Build a location on the property for composting.  Be strategic in the location, if you have backyard poultry and clean out a coop or run regularly place the compost pile nearby. 

Common Carbon Sources (Browns)

Common Nitrogen Sources (Greens)

  • Coffee grounds or tea bags
  • Kitchen scraps from vegetables and fruits.  Meats are OK to compost but can invite rodents
  • Grass clippings
  • Animal manures – avoid dogs, cats, and humans for regular compost piles
  • Seaweed
  • Plant trimmings and plants post-harvest

Backyard Chickens & Ducks

If you have a flock of chickens or ducks then doing some level of onsite composting is beneficial. Moving woodchips and straw with a garden fork is easy.  Add compost materials from your kitchen and debris from the gardens and you can create a thriving compost for your chickens and ducks to enjoy tasty treats including worms and bugs.   For both the management of waste materials from their poop to straw.  A mature compost pile is also a source of protein in the form of worms and other decomposers that they will find as tasty snacks.  While chickens can scratch a pile down to find all the goodies in a compost pile ducks will need you to open it up in order to get to the tasty treats.

The bedding from chickens and ducks makes excellent compost.  You can use the straw as a mulch when pulled straight from a duck coop.  However, make sure and compost it or partially compost the straw when using the compost from chickens.

composting with chickens and ducks