Rich earthy organic matter wakes me up more than a fresh pot of coffee (which the grinds coincidentally makes great compost). There are many ways to compost some are quicker than others, but none are more superior. You need to assess you land, time, and resources and decide exactly how you want to do this. All compost is essentially a big pile of organic matter that is meant to break down. Great compost materials are fallen leaves, straw, grass clippings, manure, sawdust, food scraps, egg shells, coffee grinds (once used), weeds before they go to seed, and pretty much and herbaceous material. Bad materials are meat and fish scraps (get stinky quick), twigs and sticks (take a long time to break down), and anything inorganic. I’ll list a few methods I know of:
Hot composting – Essentially a big ‘ol pile. The compost pile will get hot and “cook” when the right ratio of carbon-rich material (browns) and nitrogen-rich materials (greens) are combined. The pile needs to also be 27 cubic feet to allow enough pressure to get the pile going. Carbon rich materials are leaves, newspaper, cardboard, straw, sawdust, and any other dry brittle plant matter. Nitrogen rich materials are things like grass clippings, manure, fresh pulled, weeds, and any other green recently living herbaceous material. Note that the finer these materials are shredded, the quicker they will heat up and break down. From here you basically assemble the pile alternating material of greens and browns using more browns than greens (this can be done in a large pile or a large container). You should also water each layer thoroughly as all bacteria (the work horses here) are aquatic. Once the pile is assembled wait a week and the inside of the pile should be very warm – about 140F. Turn the pile with a fork every week or so and the pile will cook down into rich compost – this process takes a few months to complete.
So what’s going on here? Well a certain type of bacteria thrives in this environment. They will live more in the center of the pile where the pressure is higher. The breed and eat prolifically and this activity causes the pile to heat up. Over time they begin to reach an equilibrium and their numbers decrease. When you turn the pile you introduce more oxygen and mix in more material from the outside layers (their food) causing their numbers to surge again. Hot composting is very popular as it produces fast results and makes a good end product. The resulting compost will be very bacterially dominated.
Cold composting – Follow all the steps for hot composting except you don’t turn it, or turn it very infrequently. The hot bacterial will still be the vanguard of the pile, but once their numbers slow down other bacteria, fungi, worms, and microbes come in and break the pile down (at a slower rate). Fungi and worms do not like the heat of a hot compost pile and they hate being turned around too. The end result will take longer (6 months to a year) but the compost will have more of a balance of microbes. This is good as once they are added to the soil they can inoculate fungi – a very important and neglected champion of soil.
Sheet composting aka lasagna gardening – Super simple and lazy. This is basically composting in place, so you make the pile where you want a garden bed in the future. It is recommended to cut the grass/weeds where you plant on forming this pile as low as you can, then placing layers of wet newspaper or cardboard under the pile (this will kill the weeds/grass and prevent seeds from sprouting underneath). From here you layer up you materials alternating one type at a time. Maybe start with a foundation of straw, the manure, then leaves, then grass clippings, etc. Make sure to alternate greens and browns and always top off the pile with a brown. Also if you are going to add any food scraps make sure you put them at the bottom of the pile as they will take longer to decompose. Then you wait. If assembled in the fall you can plant right into it in the springtime. For the first year using it you should use transplants rather than direct sowing so the seeds are not blocked out by the sun. I have used this method and it is awesome! Mushrooms spring up, the ground is rich, and the 3ft tall pile was down to ground level in just 6 months. This is a nice do-dig garden and it makes for a lot of happy plants and happy soil – I cannot recommend it enough!
Mulching – yup. Just good old fashioned mulching. You can use what is normally marketed as “mulch” in the store (hardwood chips) and these are great for preserving water and covering the soil, but it takes a long time for them to decompose and nourish plants. Straw, shredded leaves, and other browns make great mulch that decompose quite quickly. Even grass clippings can be used sparingly. A woman named Ruth Stout swore by her method of using at least 8 inched of mulch on her garden beds. She would take any material she could find and pile it up. The material would break down and block out so much like no weeds could come through.
We’ve been through a lot and if you came into this knowing nothing your head is probably spinning. It’s okay, everyone starts somewhere. The most important thing is to keep on trying. You might not get it right, hell you might fuck it all up, but you will learn from your mistakes. Your first year might suck, your second will be better, third will be great, and you’ll be a master by 10 years. But you need to keep working at it, keep researching, and please keep experimenting. We’ve been doing this for millennia and yet we are always finding new ways to garden. Please post anything you’re working on to v/JustGrowIt and we can work together as a community.
TL;DR - find a plant and research it, mix in some compost, mulch the ground. Always have something planted and don’t be an asshole to the environment.