When the instructors asked "How many here have compost piles?" many of the Master Gardener Volunteers halfheartedly raised their hands. I soon realized that most, like me, had heaps of garden debris and kitchen waste slowly decomposing in various corners, but few had attempted to build an active compost.
My attitude has been one of benign neglect: compost happens, vegetation rots, so why should I spend my effort when I can just let nature take its course? But, after an inspiring lecture by the compost queen of Keene Valley, Bunny Goodwin, on the ease and value of accelerating the rate of decomposition from 2 years to 6 weeks, I decided to see if I can improve on my current (non)-management plan.
I emptied the waste corral (a piece of heavy, perforated black plastic fastened into a circle) of its contents of partially broken down vines and stalks, spreading them into an area where I plan to extend an existing bed. (If I add some mulch and dirt to cover the stalks I'll have the makings of a lasagna garden, another method for turning refuse into garden soil.)
Leaving some of the woody debris on the bottom for air circulation, I have been filling the corral with layers of grass clippings; dead bean, cucumber and tomato plants; wood chips; manure; kitchen scraps; and weeds. Adding weeds is risky, I know, so I won't add those with persistent roots like quackgrass. So far my pile is about 3 feet high and 4 feet in diameter; I'll stop when it reaches 5×5.
At that point, the pile should begin to heat up, due to an explosion of activity by microorganisms breaking down the vegetable matter, with more complete decomposition aided by forking in the edges of the pile after a few weeks. Hopefully, by next spring I'll have a stock of nitrogen-rich organic material on hand to add whenever the garden needs a boost.
Here's a video from one of my favorite groups, Kitchen Gardeners International on how to get started with compost. Do you have an active compost pile? What are your tips and techniques?