Q: I have always mowed or raked falling tree leaves, and I think I’m ready to try composting. But a neighbor says it will smell bad and attract mice. How do other gardeners handle this?
First of all, relax! In spite of a hodgepodge of expert guidelines on how to do it right, composting can be one of the simplest, most natural garden practices.
Sure, there’s a lot you can know and do to make compost quickly, but believe me — as a long time composter (I even keep red wriggler worms indoors in a plastic sweater box where they turn shredded newspapers and kitchen scraps into rich “vermicompost”), composting is easy, if done simply.
All a compost bin is, is a fenced-in leaf pile. In fact, my friend Joe Keyser, the former “Compost King” for the American Horticulture Society, says that “there are only two rules to composting: Stop throwing all that stuff away, and pile it up somewhere.” The rest is finesse.
To soothe neighbors’ concerns, build the composts bins neatly, and make sure you bury fresh materials in the existing compost to deter critters.
Make It Neat
To keep things neat, build or buy a simple compost bin. There are many different sizes and styles, and most work just fine.
My own very productive homemade compost system is simply two side-by-side bins made of wood posts and “hardware cloth” screen (available at any building supply store). Each is about four feet high and wide. To make getting to the compost easier, on the front sides I added store-bought fence gates, also lined with hardware cloth.
Into one bin I toss tree leaves, fruit rinds, vegetable trimmings, eggshells, coffee grounds, and weeds pulled from the garden, and when it’s full I start filling the other bin and letting the first one turn into compost all by itself. I don’t do any turning and aerating; I just let one bin “work” while the other is being filled. When one is emptied, I start filling it back up and using compost from the other.
I found that putting down heavy plastic (even an old shower curtain) on the bottom of the compost helps keep out tree roots, which saves a lot of effort during harvest.
Speed It Up
Once you get the hang of things, if you want to make compost faster, try these tips:
- Mix a little nitrogen-rich “green“ stuff in with the tree leaves. Include vegetable and fruit scraps and peelings, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and garden weeds that aren’t full of seeds and don’t spread from underground stems. Natural sources of nitrogen include cottonseed meal or blood meal.
- Shred large leaves with the mower before putting them in the bin.
- Keep the compost moist, not wet.
- Turn or aerate the pile from time to time to keep it working and to mix outer stuff into the middle.
Keep Critters Out
To help keep digging critters from nesting in the compost, extend the hardware cloth a few inches into the ground, and keep the front gate closed. Deter flies and other insects by burying fresh kitchen scraps – I keep an old broken-handle shovel nearby just for doing this. Burying fresh material and aerating from time to time also keeps odors down.
The main thing about composting is to forget the rules — just do it. The neighbors will just have to understand. However, sometimes showing a sense of humor will help with neighbors as well. Try putting up a sign saying “Warning: Worm Crossing” or the like. It will make everyone smile.
Gardening expert and certified wit Felder Rushing answers your questions and lays down some green-wisdom. You can get more of your Felder fix at www.slowgardening.net.