Another great thing to do while you’re waiting for your seedlings to mature is to start a compost pile. Compost is decomposed organic matter ("organic" as in “not man made”). It’s what you get when things such as vegetable scraps and fallen leaves rot and are broken down by decomposers like worms, fungi, and bacteria.
Decomposition is nature’s way of taking nutrients that are inside of dead things and making them bioavailable (able to be absorbed by other organisms) again. Compost is one of the best things you can use to fertilize your plants because it is extremely nutrient rich. Mixing it into your garden will improve the quality of your soil and may help to increase your crop yields. You can buy compost at any garden store... or you can save money and make your own - completely for free!
When ready, compost looks like rich black crumbly earth. It takes a while to get to that stage though. Decomposition time depends on a lot of different factors, but when it’s warm outside you can generally expect to get compost in 3-6 months. That’s why it’s good to get a start on composting as soon as possible.
What compost looks like when it's ready to use. Image by SuSanA Secretariat (unmodified).
While there are a lot of fancy, expensive compost bins out there that you can buy, composting really works best when you keep things simple.
The first thing you need to do is to collect stuff to decompose. The number one place to do this is in your kitchen – instead of sending your food waste straight to the landfill where it will fail to decompose and contribute massively to CO2 emissions, you can put it to good use in your compost pile!
You can’t compost everything, though. For example, you should never put meat or meat-eating (dog and cat) waste in your pile because it contains bacteria that you do not want anywhere near your food. Below is a handy guide you can use to determine what you can and can’t compost (click here for a PDF version that you can print out!)
I recommend keeping your food scraps in a sealed container (I use a large glass flour jar from Goodwill) so they don’t smell. Put the container close to your garbage bin so you don’t forget to sort your compostables from the rest of your trash. Empty the container out into your compost pile as frequently as possible.
The second source of stuff for your compost pile is your yard (or your friends’ and neighbors’ yards if you don’t have one). Leaves, grass clippings, and weeds all make great composting material. Sticks work as well but take a long time to decompose.
Once you have stuff to decompose, pick a spot to put your compost pile (get your landlord’s permission first if you rent). The farther away from buildings, the better – the pile will attract animals and bugs. Then simply plop your materials in a pile on the ground and add some soil on top. The soil will introduce microorganisms that you need for decomposition. To cut down on any smells, you can cover your food scraps with leaves or other yard waste (you should also do this when the weather is cold, as it will insulate your compost pile and keep the decomposition going).
That’s it! Now all you need to do is wait and keep adding stuff to your pile. Rainwater is sufficient to keep the pile moist, but you should water your compost during dry periods of at least three weeks without rain.
If you want to get really fancy, you can think of your pile as a sort of lasagna and intersperse layers of “green” material (food scraps, weeds, grass) with layers of “brown” material (leaves, straw, and wood shavings). Apparently this speeds the process up. It’s not super important though – no matter what you do, you will get compost. You really can’t get decomposition wrong.
The only thing I do NOT recommend doing is using a compost bin that seals your compost away completely (see below). These do not work well. To properly decompose, your compost needs to be touching the ground and exposed to the elements. It needs oxygen and rainwater. If you want to contain your pile a bit, you can construct a three-sided compost frame out of chicken wire or wood. Stuff might grow on top of your pile – don't stress about it.
Bad compost bin design
Good compost bin design! Image by Daryl Mitchell (unmodified).
After several months, dark brown compost will begin to form at the bottom of your pile. Lift away the stuff on top to get at it. Some people shovel that stuff into a separate pile to form multiple compost piles in various stages of decomposition. Do whatever works for you.
And... voila! Fresh compost!
Now, I haven’t forgotten about those of you who do not have access to land. You can get cheap compost too. Municipal landfills and yard waste sites will often produce compost that folks can pick up for a fee. Sometimes these places sell inexpensive memberships that allow you to take as much compost as you want for a year. Sometimes the compost is free! Your local community garden may offer compost as well.
If you live in an apartment, you can try vermicomposting (composting with worms in a plastic bin)! I have never attempted this, but worm castings are a fantastic fertilizer.
For more in depth information on composting, check out this resource. As always, if you have any questions or tips to share, please comment below!