According to Martha Stewart, compost consists of “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials) and “browns” (carbon-rich materials). You want to keep it damp but not drowning. You want to feed it good stuff from your kitchen: Vegetable peelings and kitchen scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds. You want to add other things that can help bulk it up, adding nutrients as it slowly breaks down: Newspaper (torn or shredded), straw, dried leaves and clippings.
What NOT to add:
Items such as meat, bones, cheese or dairy products, fatty food waste, pet waste, and cat litter should be avoided. Anything cooked is a no no. These things can attract unwanted critters as well.
According to the University of Illinois, compost is ready when a few things happen:
Compost is ready to use when it is dark, brown, and crumbly with an earthy odor. It would not be moldy and rotten. Crumbly compost will be sort of fluffy; it does not need to be decomposed to a point of being powdery. The original materials that went into the compost pile should no longer be recognizable in finished compost, except for some woody pieces. The temperature of the finished compost should be the same as the outside air temperature, and the material should not reheat. You will see earthworms and other insects now that the temperature is lower. If your compost is still hot, smells like ammonia, or you can still recognize much of the original material which went into the pile, then it is not ready to use yet. Once the compost appears finished, let it sit for at least 3 weeks to make sure the decomposition process has stabilized.
How to maintain it:
Keep it in the sun. Wet it down from time to time. And when it starts to shrink, turn it (or flip the bin). Of course, even if you don’t do a thing, the stuff you add will eventually break down – that’s by design – but it will take a lot longer. The compost will be ready by spring if you start it the previous year. I suggest starting two piles, that way you can continue adding stuff to one while the other “cools” off enough to use. The microbes in the center of the pile can really heat things up. Don’t add hot compost to your garden beds and damage your new plants.
This garden plot that my sister and I rented came with a huge pile of leaves and wood chips and whatever. It looks like it is free of weeds so I think we’ll try to use it as compost. We’ll have to add more greens and get it ready for next year.
We’ll keep you posted!
We ended up using this pile as mulch in the pathways instead… it wasn’t a very good pile after all. C’est la vie.