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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

4 Secrets to the perfect garden compost

Oct 31, 2022 01:13PM ● By Bryan Reed

In nature there is no waste. Everything decomposes to continue the nutrient cycle, nourishing life. Composting is just a way of speeding up the process.

Adding compost to your soil improves garden production while reducing what goes into a landfill. You create your own fertilizer, bind heavy metals for plants to absorb and increase the water holding capacity of the soil.

You probably already have all the materials necessary to begin composting. The truth is bacteria, protozoa, fungi and other beneficial microbes do all the heavy lifting. Our main goal is to keep them happy. 

Just like any other living thing, microbes need food, water and air to survive. When microbes thrive, they respire carbon dioxide that comes off in the form of heat. A cold compost pile means the microbes aren’t happy so we need to revisit their three primary needs.


The most fundamental skill of composting is balancing green and brown materials in the compost pile. A big pile of green grass clippings will end up a stinky, wet mess over time and a mound of fallen leaves will take years to break down. When we combine two or three parts browns to one part greens, we start the fast and odor-free process of composting. 

Green items (food waste, plant trimmings, animal manures) are all high in nitrogen and contain protein for microbes. Brown items (old leaves, straw, cardboard, sawdust) are high in carbon and supply carbohydrates. Adding layers of each to the compost pile helps keep it balanced. 

Scientifically, this is referred to as the carbon nitrogen ratio. Ideally, we want a ratio of 30- or 40-to-1 for great compost. But don’t stress if your ratios aren’t exact. The microbes will still decompose the materials; it will just take longer.

I like to add animal manure to compost as it houses decomposing actinobacteria that can’t be found anywhere else. Source aged manure from healthy animals that haven’t been pastured in weed fields. Horse and chicken manure are fantastic options. Llama and rabbit don’t harbor diseases in the manure and break down quickly. I add one to two shovelfuls on top of the food waste I add to the compost pile to rehydrate the actinobacteria and provide them with food.


Microbes need moisture to stay happy and productive. 

Aim to have 50 percent moisture in your compost pile. You can test for adequate moisture by making a ball of compost materials in your hand. If it feels dry to the touch or if the ball falls apart when you open your hand, add water to the pile.

Putting carpets on your compost pile can help it retain moisture in our dry summers. In winter, compost piles stay moist longer, so using a watering can will suffice.

If you squeeze the ball and water comes out, it’s over saturated and the microbes can drown. Add some dry leaves to absorb the extra water. 


Microbes need oxygen to breathe, so aerate the compost pile every three to five days by stabbing it with a pitchfork or shovel.

The best composting occurs in the center of the pile, so completely turn it every other aeration. I tend to flatten out the pile, lift the center up and to the back and scoop the sides back towards the middle. Then I’ll reshape it into a nice pile. 


Mature compost should be deep brown and granular with a wonderful earthy smell. You shouldn’t be able to identify the parent materials that went into the pile.

It takes four to six months for a compost pile to fully mature. You don’t want to put food scraps in your garden, so after a few months, it’s best to stop adding to an established pile and start a new one. 

Having two compost bins is a great idea, as one can be finishing out while the other is being actively added to. At my home, I screwed together three pallets in a U-shape with a cross piece of lumber on top to stabilize it. Then I added another L-shape to one side to create a two-bin system. I keep bags of leaves on one side and five-gallon buckets of manure on the other.

The upside of purchasing compost tumblers is that they make composting much easier for folks with physical limitations. The downside is that being suspended in the air means there’s no contact with native soil and microbes. If you go this route, adding a shovelful of healthy garden soil to the batch of compost will inoculate the pile nicely.

Check out this other article about composting:

Boost your garden with compost tea

Boost your garden with compost tea

As we enter the home stretch of the growing season, giving your plants a boost of nutrients can really help round out your crop production, resulting in more nutritious produce for you to... Read More » 


Watch Bryan’s how-to video on making quality compost.