Starting a Garden Waste Compost

Transform your garden waste into useful plant food with these easy composting tips

Credit: Flickr / brotherM

Chopping up the larger plants and branches will speed up decomposition

A garden compost turns your leaves, grass clippings, and garden waste into a fabulous source of nutrients for your plants

A garden waste compost bin is different from a food waste compost bin. A garden waste compost is open to the elements, and is used only for leaves and plant materials, not for food.

Although experts obsess about moisture optimization and carbon-nitrogen ratios, garden waste composting is low-maintenance and easy, and even those with small gardens can benefit.

Garden Composts Should be Convenient with Good Drainage

Almost any underused space can be utilized for a garden waste compost. Find a location that is out of sight but still easy and convenient to access. Make sure that it is not against a building or a hedge. The spot needs be level and to have good drainage, with soil or gravel at the base. Select a location that will likely be permanent, because moving a half-decayed compost pile can be messy and inconvenient.

Use a Container

Although garden waste can be composted in a large pile, a structure or bin to contain the compost and protect it from the elements is preferred. The size of the container can range from a garbage bin-sized to an enclosure made of scrap wood or discarded wood pallets, and depends how much material your garden produces.

An open wood container or a combination of wood/chicken wire is ideal, as you want to maximize the air circulation to help the material break down and to keep the compost from stinking.

A No-food Compost

Grass clippings, leaves, small twigs, old raspberry canes, garden plants and old blooms can all go into the garden waste compost.

Do not introduce any food, vegetables or fruit into your garden waste compost unless you want to end up hosting an ongoing buffet for all the neighborhood rats and raccoons (trust me on this, I know from experience).

Even seemingly innocent items such as deadfall fruit and mouldy jack-o-lanterns will attract hungry rodents to your yard.

Increase Decomposition by Chopping Things Up

Chopping up the larger plants and branches will increase the surface areas to accelerate decomposition. Hard wood branches, evergreen leaves and cedar hedge clippings take a long time to break down, so you may want to put those items into the municipal yard waste.

Also for the municipal waste: invasive plants, weeds that have gone to seed, diseased plants, and anything that has been chemically sprayed. The finished compost will eventually go on your garden, so avoid adding any “yuck elements,” such as animal feces or dead birds.

Air Circulation is the Key to Compost Success

The key to successful composting is adequate air circulation. A layer of branches or canes at the bottom of the pile will encourage air circulation from the bottom. Don’t compress or step on the compost pile to pack it down. As well, aerating or turning the pile weekly with a compost aerator or a pitchfork is recommended. During the wet winter months, lightly covering the compost with a plastic tarp will prevent the pile from becoming water-saturated.

The Compost Process

The compost process depends on a magic mix of temperature, moisture and microorganisms to break down the plant material. This time of year, when the temperatures are starting to drop, may not be ideal for starting a compost bin, however this is when gardens produce the most leaves and waste material.

When spring arrives and the weather warms up, the material will rapidly begin to decompose, and your first batch of finished compost will likely be ready in mid to late summer.