Compost Basics

Getting Started

Dirt1The first weekend after moving into my new house I started a compost pile. Yes, this came before doing anything else in the yard. Why is compost so important? Well, the “soil” in most of Pinellas County has to be seen to be believed. It is a very fine sand with little organic content—I often refer to it as “talcum powder.” It has minimal natural fertility and drains so quickly that it retains neither moisture nor added fertilizers. The only practical way to improve it is to mix in lots of organic matter. Because of our heat and humidity the organic matter decays very rapidly and must be constantly replenished.

Adding compost to my coastal Florida “soil” improves its structure, fertility, and water retention but it won’t give me the beautiful soil seen in magazines. The only place around here you can find that kind of soil is in container gardens filled with imported soil.

What is compost? 

Compost is simply organic matter, stuff that was once alive, that has partially decayed. Rather than write a detailed description, I direct you to a decent, short article on Wikipedia:


What I’m going to describe below is the way I do things. I am an engineer who designs machinery for a living—not a doctor or pathologist or nutritionist. While I’ve been doing this for years with absolutely no ill effects, everything I write is merely my opinion. You must do your own research and decide if my methods are for you. I take no responsibility for what you do. And I don’t expect you to take any responsibility for me!

My first compost pile (at my new house)

Once my bin was complete I began raking leaves. I have two large oak trees – planted in 1972 – in my front (south) yard. The people from whom I bought my house spent all their time remodeling the inside. They hadn’t done anything with the yard. Needless to say, there were plenty of leaves to rake up.

I raked the leaves onto an old plastic tarp that I had found; this became my poor man’s sledge to drag them into the back yard. I piled them up next to my bin. As the pile got too big I used my bagging lawnmower to shred the leaves and dump them into the bin. I also mowed the back yard, bagging the grass clippings and dumping them in with the shredded leaves. This added some nitrogen to the mix. As I filled the bin I added buckets of water – many buckets – to moisten everything down. By the time I was finished that first weekend my 4 foot tall bin had leaves piled six feet high.

Over the next two weeks I continued raking and mowing, shredding and piling. I estimate that I managed to fit at least 75 cubic feet of shredded leaves into 2 fifty-cubic-foot bin (it quickly heated up and began settling). After I had overfilled it for the third time, I started a new bin.

Unfortunately, the compost was drying out much too fast. I decided to wrap the whole bin in plastic. I had to do that on the outside since it was already full. When I built the new bin I put the plastic on the inside. I’ll show you what I did in my next column.

There are many online resources explaining the different ways to do composting. People seem to like to stress about getting the carbon – nitrogen ratio just right, adding accelerators and starters, turning the compost, or even buying incredibly expensive manufactured bins and compost tumblers. I do none of these things – too expensive and too much like work.

My method is simple – and probably dates back to the early days of agriculture. I simply keep piling stuff up until I decide it’s time to stop. I add water as needed to keep the pile moist. And I wait. In Florida, with its heat and humidity, I generally start using the compost 3 to 6 months after I stop filling the bin. That’s all there is to it.

How it works

Short answer: God designed things to work that way! I’ve been told – actually I’ve read – that scientists have determined that microscopic organisms – bacteria and fungi – eat my yard waste and turn it into compost. These writers claim a that there are many many different types of these little critters at work. Some of them do their best work at cool temperatures. Others can’t even start growing and reproducing until the temperature rises above 140°F! And yet, these bacteria are found almost everywhere. Pretty amazing. All of the bacteria and fungi that are needed to do the composting process are already present. You don’t have to add any starter culture. They just get to work.

Can I save money by making my own compost?

Let me put this is delicately as I can. Many people buy a manufactured composting bin, purchase starter cultures, or spend money on compost accelerators. These folks will have the satisfaction of making their own compost but will spend far more money than the same amount of compost would have cost at a discount garden center.

If you expect to earn minimum wage for your labor, no.

If, like me, you build your own, cheap, composting bins and work in your garden instead of spending money on a gym membership then the answer is a resounding yes.

In future posts I’ll have a lot more to share, but now I must do some painting before the day gets too hot.

Happy gardening,