As I look out the livingroom window at my compost bins, they are still covered with at least a couple of feet of snow, and nothing looks like it will be ready for use in a couple of months.

But I know that it will.

We maintain an informal compost pile, while there are better and more expert methods to assure a plentiful amount of this rich, organic matter for boosting vegetable crops.

Ours are simply 4×4-foot squares using four wooden pallets to create the sides that have been tied together with heavy twine. As un-picturesque as it may be, it does do the job.

Many compost bins are for sale in the market with a wide range of costs. But if the goal is to create rich fertilizer and mulch for your tomatoes or other vegetables, it really doesn’t matter what the compost pile looks like.

For those new to the concept, there are a few rules:


  • *Start with a little seasoned compost, or soil.
  • *Try to layer the materials that will be tossed into it.
  • *Keep two or three compost bins going at all times.
  • *Don’t use meat, or grasses filled with seeds.(Because the compost is so rich, a healthy grass crop may grow. Several times throughout the years, some of the end-of-garden debris apparently had seeds. We got our best winter squash crop from the compost bin one year).
  • *Keep a small container in the kitchen handy to collect peelings, leftover greens, and other materials that will be used.
  • *Turn the pile every week or so.
  • *Keep moist but not sopping wet.

Not all compost piles need a frame. An informal one can be created simply by layering the compost components in a partially sunny area just as you would in a bin. I like a bin, or some kind of container though because the materials can be more or less bunched up into one section of my garden area.

Once a site has been chosen, deposit three or four inches of seasoned compost or garden soil in the bottom of the bin or pile. Then start building it.

Collect any leftover leaves or grass clippings that weren’t raked up last fall and layer atop the compost or soil, then add a bit more soil or seasoned compost. Continue to add grass clippings as the summer season progresses. And don’t forget to add the leaves in the fall.

Then start adding kitchen waste materials. The smaller these materials are chopped, the quicker they will break down into compost material.

There are two ways to succeed at building a useful compost pile:

*The lazy, long-time method where everything that is compostable is tossed onto the pile. Eventually, in two or three years, everything will break down and the completed material can be used as a mulch or fertilizer. Every now and then, use a pitch fork to turn the material.


This is my preferred way to create compost. I keep three bins going — one for adding fresh kitchen scraps so it won’t be ready for a year or two; another that is half-way into the process, and a third that is ready to use on this year’s garden.

Two are made from wooden pallets and the third is constructed of plastic-coated wire. But other materials may be used, too, such as chicken wire that is propped up with metal or wooden stakes or a large, 55-gallon plastic barrel that has holes poked in the bottom to let water escape.

Before applying the mixture around garden plants or working it into the soil, some advise letting the completed compost cure for a week or two. I have not done that and the compost has worked well.

We like to shovel the completed compost onto our raised beds, and around both potted and garden tomato plants, then work it into the soil.

As a mulch, compost helps retain moisture so when there’s a dry spell, plants will continue to thrive. And of course, the decomposed nutrients help feed the plants.

A method for creating compost even faster requires chopping compostable materials very small, and faithfully turning the material every week, as well as being sure that the mixture has just the right amount of water.

This method can create usable compost in just a few weeks. But it takes more work.

However compost is made, it’s one of the best things we can do to improve the abundance of our gardens, while also being environmentally friendly.

No more tossing those onion skins or potato peelings into the garbage, but instead using them to grow more and larger vegetables.

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