Compost is a wonderful soil amendment and very easy to make. You need organic matter, moisture, oxygen, and bacteria.

Compost bin

Containers need to have plenty of ventilation and some moisture.

Nothing. Compost can be created by making a 6x6x5 foot pile of alternating brown and green debris. The brown supplies carbon, the green supplies nitrogen.

Chicken wire in a cylinder. Mount 2 stakes in the ground and wrap chicken wire around it. Remove the chicken wire, turn the compost, put the compost back in chicken wire receptacle. The cylinder should be about 3 feet in diameter and 3 to 4 feet tall.

A homemade container can be made by taking a small garbage can and perforating it with 1/4 inch holes on the sides and bottom. A closed container has the advantage of keeping critters out better and hiding the contents from the neighbors.

Compost tumblerCompost tumblers have an advantage of being easy to turn the compost material. They do not hold as much as a garbage can.

How to make compost

Construct a pile 4 to 6 feet tall. Start off with a 6 inch layer of brown material followed by 3 inches of green material.

One layer is (green) plant debris, which adds nitrogen.

  • leaves
  • grass clippings
  • unseeded weeds
  • kitchen scraps
    • vegetable and fruit scraps
    • coffee grounds
    • breads
    • pastas
    • tea bags
    • ground egg shells

6 to 8 inches deep followed by 1 to 2 inches of (brown) debris, which adds carbon:

  • cow manure
  • topsoil
  • dried leaves
  • dried grass clippings
  • shredded newspaper (not colored ads)
  • straw
  • hay
  • sawdust
  • nitrogen-rich fertilizer
  • soil
  • twigs

Do not use:

  • poisonous plants (e.g. poison ivy)
  • meat
  • fat
  • bones
  • dairy products
  • oils
  • diseased plants
  • pesticides
  • used kitty litter
  • garden plant roots
  • plastics
  • styrofoam
  • medical waste
  • batteries
  • diapers

Chop or grind large materials into small pieces. Run over stuff with a lawnmower. Use a leaf sucker that chops up leaves.

Keep compost moist but not soggy nor dry. It should have consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Add a thin layer of soil every once in a while. Soil is rich in microbes.

Turn the compost pile every week or so. This reduces odors and helps compost decompose evenly. Compost should be ready in 1 to 3 months.

Before using compost, sift it through a 1 inch mesh screen, like chicken wire. Chop up the pieces left over.

In order to get the composting kickstarted, your pile needs to be hot and wet. The two biggest problems a compost system encounters are lack of heat and lack of moisture. These affect the composting process in different ways.

  • Try to keep the internal heat of your compost bin at 110 °F (43 °C) or higher. Between 110 °F (43 °C) and 140 °F (60 °C) is the ideal temperature for your pile. If your pile dips below 110 °F (43 °C), consider adding more green nitrogen-rich material or more water.
  • Try to keep the compost pile damp throughout — never soaked and never dry. A moist pile will heat up more efficiently, allowing for better composing in the end
  • New compost needs more water than a partially rotted one.
  • Don’t get the compost too wet


Use a lawnmower or leaf picker-upper to chop leaves into a fine mulch. The mulch can be left on the ground or added to the compost pile.

Keep the composter in a sunny area to speed up decomposition and keep out ants.

Bury kitchen scraps under at least 10 inches of compost in the bin so the smell does not attract animals or flies.

If there are a lot of ants, that is a sign the compost is not being turned enough.

Build three containers: one for composting, one for soil to add to compost, one for starting compost.

Turn the compost often.

Composting process

The composting process involves four main components: organic mattermoistureoxygen, and bacteria.

Organic matter includes plant materials and some animal manures. Organic materials used for compost should include a mixture of brown organic material (dead leaves, twigs, manure) and green organic material (lawn clippings, fruit rinds, etc.). Brown materials supply carbon, while green materials supply nitrogen. The best ratio is 1 part green to 1 part brown material. Shredding, chopping or mowing these materials into smaller pieces will help speed the composting process by increasing the surface area.

For piles that have mostly brown material (dead leaves), try adding a handful of commercial 10-10-10 fertilizer to supply nitrogen and speed the compost process.

Moisture is important to support the composting process. Compost should be comparable to the wetness of a wrung-out sponge.

If the pile is too dry, materials will decompose very slowly. Add water during dry periods or when adding large amounts of brown organic material.

If the pile is too wet, turn the pile and mix the materials. Another option is to add dry, brown organic materials.

Oxygen is needed to support the breakdown of plant material by bacteria. To supply oxygen, you will need to turn the compost pile so that materials at the edges are brought to the center of the pile. Turning the pile is important for complete composting and for controlling odor.

Wait at least two weeks before turning the pile, to allow the center of the pile to “heat up” and decompose. Once the pile has cooled in the center, decomposition of the materials has taken place. Frequent turning will help speed the composting process.

Bacteria and other microorganisms are the real workers in the compost process. By supplying organic materials, water, and oxygen, the already present bacteria will break down the plant material into useful compost for the garden. As the bacteria decompose the materials, they release heat, which is concentrated in the center of the pile.

You may also add layers of soil or finished compost to supply more bacteria and speed the composting process. Commercial starters are available but should not be necessary for compost piles that have a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio (1 part green organic material to 1 part brown organic material).

In addition to bacteria, larger organisms including insects and earthworms are active composters. These organisms break down large materials in the compost pile.

How long does it take?

The amount of time needed to produce compost depends on several factors, including the size of the compost pile, the types of materials, the surface area of the materials, and the number of times the pile is turned.

For most efficient composting, use a pile that is between 3 feet cubed and 5 feet cubed (27-125 cu. ft.). This allows the center of the pile to heat up sufficiently to break down materials.

Smaller piles can be made but will take longer to produce finished compost. Larger piles can be made by increasing the length of the pile but limiting the height and the depth to 5 feet tall by 5 feet deep; however, large piles are limited by a person’s ability to turn the materials. You may also want to have two piles, one for finished compost ready to use in the garden, and the other for unfinished compost.

If the pile has more brown organic materials, it may take longer to compost. You can speed up the process by adding more green materials or a fertilizer with nitrogen (use one cup per 25 square feet).

The surface area of the materials effects the time needed for composting. By breaking materials down into smaller parts (chipping, shredding, mulching leaves), the surface area of the materials will increase. This helps the bacteria to more quickly break down materials into compost.

Finally, the number of times the pile is turned influences composting speed. By turning more frequently (about every 2-4 weeks), you will produce compost more quickly. Waiting at least two weeks allows the center of the pile to heat up and promotes maximum bacterial activity. The average composter turns the pile every 4-5 weeks.

When turning the compost pile, make sure that materials in the center are brought to the outsides, and that materials from the outside edges are brought to the center.

With frequent turning, compost can be ready in about 3 months, depending on the time of year. In winter, the activity of the bacteria slows, and it is recommended that you stop turning the pile after November to keep heat from escaping the pile’s center. In summer, warm temperatures encourage bacterial activity and the composting process is quicker


The compost has a bad odor

Problem: Not enough air. Not enough water. Too small.
Solutions: Turn it, add dry material if the pile is too wet.

The center of the pile is dry

Problem: Lack of nitrogen.
Solutions: Moisten and turn the pile.

The compost is damp and warm only in the middle

Problem: Pile is too small.
Solutions: Collect more material and mix the old ingredients into a new pile.

The heap is damp and sweet-smelling but still will not heat up

Problem: Lack of nitrogen.
Solutions: Mix in a nitrogen source like fresh grass clippings, manure or fertilizer.

Large, undecomposed items are still in the mix

Problem: Low surface area.
Solutions: Remove items, and chop or shred large items.


Compost Info

Coffee Grounds in the Garden

I have heard about using coffee grounds in the garden a long time ago. I was reluctant because I thought the grounds were too acidic and did not add much nutritional value.

But I was wrong.

  • Coffee grounds have a near neutral pH once they start decomposing.
  • They are rich in nitrogen which is good for most plants (not legumes).
  • Worms are attracted to them (worms are great for the garden).
  • Coffee filters and teabags break down quickly which is great for composting.
  • Make coffee ground “tea.” Add two cups of used coffee grounds to a five-gallon bucket of water. Let the “tea” steep for a few hours or overnight. You can use this concoction as a liquid fertilizer for garden and container plants. It also makes a great foliar feed.

Most coffee shops will be glad to give you their used coffee grounds.

Coffee grounds is considered green part of composting (meaning they contain mostly nitrogen. Brown means it contains mostly carbon.) with about 20:1 of nitrogen to carbon.

Coffee grounds are approximately 1.5% nitrogen. They also contain magnesium, calcium, potassium, copper, and other trace minerals.

If you do add a large quantity, you may want to dig them into the garden as there are reports that they will “go bad” and develop a fungal layer if left exposed to the air. They have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 20:1, roughly the same as grass clippings.

Contrary to popular belief, coffee grounds are not acidic. After brewing, the grounds are close to pH neutral, between 6.5 and 6.8. Neutral pH is 7. The acid in the beans is mostly water-soluble, so it leaches into the coffee we drink.

Coffee grounds take a few months to break down.

Coffee grounds are easily compacted which would prevent water and air from reaching the plant, if the coffee grounds layer is too thick (over 1/2 inch).

Coffee grounds lack phosphorus (the key ingredient in flowering fertilizers) so they cannot be used as a standalone fertilizer for flowering plants. If you could buy coffee grounds in bags at garden centers the 3 numbers on the bag would be 2-0.33-1. (nitrogen – phosphorus – potassium)


Don’t use coffee grounds as an only mulch. Sprinkle up to 1/2 inch around then cover with a few inches of coarse mulch, such as wood chips.

Use 10% to 20% volume in a compost pile.

Work coffee grounds into the soil so they do not mold. It is best to compost coffee grounds before using them.

I put some around some vegetables and roses which I’ll report on at the end of the growing season.


Although empirical, I notice a lot more worms in the garden this year. Could be the coffee grounds…

Very Handy Vegetable Fertilizer Chart

vegetable fertilizer

I was asked the other day about fertilize schedules for vegetables. There is plenty of fertilize information but not all in one place so I decided to create a vegetable fertilizer chart. Once the vegetables are planted, it is weed and feed (hopefully not feed the weeds) time until harvest.


Side-dress – apply fertilizer 6 inches or so from center of plant. If one plant is involved, apply around entire plant. If a row of plants are involved, apply in a straight line on both sides of the row.

Vegetable Fertilizer Table

Vegetable Dosage Amt per plant Notes
10-10-10 4 cups per 100 sq ft Early Spring
10-10-10 4 cups per 100 sq ft After harvest (June or July)
Carrots 10-10-10 2 TBL per 10 feet Side-dress when 3 inches tall
Cucumbers 10-10-10 1 TBL Side-dress when plants vines are 10 inches long and after flowers begin to bloom. Do not dig down with a hoe more than 1 inch because this will damage the shallow feeder roots. The main roots go down 5 feet.
Green Beans 0-10-10 Side-dress. Generally do not need fertilizer in decent soil. Do not give fertilizer that contains nitrogen.
Lettuce 10-0-0 or 10-10-10 1 cup per 10 feet Side-dress when 2 to 3 inches high.
Peppers 5-10-10 1 tsp When blossoms show
Potatoes 10-10-10 2 LB per 100 sq ft Side-dress when flowers appear
Pumpkins 10-20-10
2 TBL While vine is growing.
Once fruit is set.
Radishes 10-10-10 1 cup per 10 ft Work fertilizer in soil just before planting.
Spinach 10-10-10 1 cup per 100 sq. feet Side-dress when 2 to 3 inches tall.
Sweet Corn 10-10-10 9 LB per 1000 sq ft Side-dress when plant is 1 foot tall and when tassels appear.
Tomatoes 10-10-10 1 TBL Side-dress 8 inches from plant in a circle every 3 weeks
Zucchini 10-20-10 or 10-20-20 1 TBL They need higher phosphorus than nitrogen. Side-dress fertilize when fruits form.

2 cups = 1 pound fertilizer, TBL = tablespoon, LB = pound

Click to download the chart in PDF format.

Time Release Fertilizer

What are the benefits of time-release fertilizer?

Time-release, or controlled-release, fertilizer gradually delivers the major nutrients plants need – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – over a fixed period. This can range from a few months to a year, depending on the product you choose.

The nutrients are encapsulated in small spheres, called “prills”, made of a resin that dissolves slowly in soil. While conventional fertilizers must be applied regularly throughout the season, time-release varieties need to be used only at planting time. In most cases, additional fertilizers are not necessary.

With time-release formulas, you don’t have to worry about clumping, which can be a problem when granular fertilizers are exposed to humidity. And unlike powder or liquid kinds, which must be diluted in water, time-release fertilizer is ready to use – just distribute the prills within the top 3 inches of soil.

You may apply a time-release fertilizer in almost any garden situation, but it is especially well suited for use with annuals (the life spans of both the product and the plants coincide nicely). Heavy feeders, such as petunias, tuberous begonias and angel trumpets, are the best candidates for this formula. The high cost of time-release fertilizer, however, usually prohibits its use in large-scale applications, such as in vegetable beds.

Read the package carefully to be sure the time-release formula you choose is appropriate for your growing season, and avoid applying it too early. The prills are engineered to dissolve in warm temperatures (generally 70 degrees F and higher). Freezing temperatures can damage the coatings, causing all nutrients to be released on the first warm day.

Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potash

I had the good luck of talking with a knowledgeable feed store employee. The subject was the big 3: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. My concern was the green beans would not get enough phosphorus and potash. They do not need nitrogen since they are a legume and produce their own. His response was: do not worry about it.
Phosphorus and potash are very insoluble and move very little in soil. They are not affected by weather conditions. Nitrogen is leached out of the soil by rainwater and usage by roots so it must be replenished periodically.


Nitrogen gives plants their dark green color and increases leaf and stem growth. The crispness and quality of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach is influenced by nitrogen levels. Plants deficient in nitrogen have light green to yellow leaves and appear stunted.


Phosphorus encourages root growth and establishment. Phosphorus is also crucial for plant flowering and fruiting, especially seed production. Most of the internal plant chemical reactions are dependent on phosphorus. Poor flowering and fruiting may be signs of the lack of phosphorus. Some plants, including corn and tomatoes, may exhibit red or purple leaves. Cold soils can prevent phosphorus uptake, even though the element is present.


Potassium or potash increases the plant’s vigor, winter hardiness and resistance to diseases. Stems and stalks are stiffer. Plant seed or fruit yield is improved. Reduced vigor, susceptibility to diseases and thin skinned or small fruit may be signs of potassium deficiency.

Fertilizer Contents

A complete fertilizer contains all three nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash (potassium). The fertilizer bag has three numbers on it: like 12-10-8. The first number is nitrogen, second is phosphorus, and the third is potash. Each number is the percent weight of the element. For example a 50 pound bag of 12-10-8 has 6 pounds of nitrogen, 5 pounds phosphorus and 4 pounds of potash. In our example there is 15 pounds of nutrients and 35 pounds of filler: ground corn cobs, sawdust, vermiculite, and other which makes it easier to apply the fertilizer.


I use a balanced fertilizer, like 12-12-12 or 10-10-10, on other vegetables like corn and potatoes. I admit I do not have the soil tested but I do rotate crops to mitigate the spread of disease. Application is easy: run a line of fertilizer on each side of the row of plants about 6 inches from the stem. Work the fertilizer in the soil with a hoe. Water immediately to start the fertilizer process or wait for rain. Do not let the fertilizer touch the plant or else it will burn it.

Using time-release fertilizer is not a good idea since it releases nutrients based on environmental conditions rather than plant needs.

Soil Testing

If you cannot measure it you cannot control it. A soil testing kit is inexpensive and worthwhile.
Test the first 6 inches of soil for phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is tested in the first 24 inches of soil.