Often when I'm asked how I manage growing organically without any chemical fertilisers and pesticides people are surprised at the simplicity of my answer: take care of the soil and it will take care of your plants. Each year I add a layer of compost to improve soil structure and feed the soil, as it has lots of beneficial nutrients in it and the organic matter breaks down into humus which is true gardeners gold. Many gardeners make composting sound like rocket science, but really it need not be so difficult as it sounds. In fact, autumn is a great time of year to start building your own compost as there is an abundance of ready material for it with all the faded flower stalks, vegetable bed leftovers, leaves and other organic material that are left over from the summer season. Here I shall discuss the basics of composting and show some pictures of different heaps and composition, just to show how easy it can be and how different they can look.
One of the simplest composts is like the one above, made from sturdy metal mesh into a circular cage that is filled with compostable materials in different layers. In large professional gardens, different vegetative materials are often kept in different heaps to make balanced composts that have as close as possible optimal heat and moisture. A basic rule of thumb is to add about 25 % fresh wet green stuff like grass cuttings, vegetable debris, clover and other green manure and 75% drier materials like leaves, straw or dried vegetative material. A lot of people have only one compost heap, and this will work up to a point but not very effectively. With only one compost heap, it is usually the place where all vegetative material ends up as soon as a clearing chore is done. In the autumn when all the leaves that come down all at once, it gets a thick and too dry layer where nothing happens and in summer there is lots of green material, leaving the compost too wet and sometimes smelly without enough air. This may be a reason for home composts being regarded as difficult: it needs to be balanced in composition.
In a home garden, you can easily build a three-tier system that produces garden gold for each new season. Leave a heap of leaves from autumn (and any surplus of dried stuff) separately, and then build a compost divided into two with one side twice as large as the other. When you begin, line the larger section of the compost bin with dry leaves, and then add grass cuttings and green stuff as you go along when clearing the garden. Every now and then, add a layer of dry stuff before more green stuff is added. Woody waste from the vegetable garden such as sunflower-, brassica- and potato stalks belongs to the 75% of corse and dry stuff in the heap, while typically carrot and beetroot leaves belong to the 25% wet stuff in the mix. Of course, the more heat a compost has the quicker the process where micro organisms work will be, and if you want to speed it up you can add manure in layers to give it a push. As I have a yearly supply of manure, I start off a compost by mixing leaves and manure together in layers in the autumn in my dry-goods-scrap-heap. In the spring I mix this (corse 75% mix) with garden waste (wet 25% mix) in layers all throughout summer until the heap is full in autumn, and then I leave the heap as such over the winter. Next spring when it has thawed after the snow I transfer it into the smaller bin to continue being processed over the summer season, while I start a new heap in the larger bin. So by year two you will have a constant supply of compost from the smaller bin that it is good as gold. If for some reason something has gone wrong, it being too wet, too dry or too corse, I simply turn it once again and leave it one more summer or winter to mature.
I put only garden waste and vegetative materials on my open composts, as I really am not very fond of rodents and these little animals will turn up if you put foodstuff on an open compost! For my foodstuff I use a sealed plastic container and mix it with chicken coop sawdust and chicken poop, which make it into really strongly nutrient rich compost. This special mix I usually only use in difficult areas, such as the borders close to the house where the soil is really poor and dry and needs a lift. Even here, I use it sparingly so as not to over load the system! My regular compost, on the other hand, is not quite as strongly infused in nutrients but contains great amounts of humus which is super for the soil. Humus is composted organic matter that has a lot of microbes and nutrients in it which feed the soils own microorganisms and other creatures, thereby creating a healthy soil life that in turn maintains healthy plants. As I put leaves in my compost mix the end result is always more varied and corse than one with only other vegetative materials. This is because most vegetative materials are composted in two years, while leaves take on average three years. I do this on purpose, as composted leaves are a great source of humus and since I use my compost as a mulch it doesn't matter if it has half composted material in it as it all breaks down within a year. (Using it as a mulch means I lay it on the soil around the plants as a cover, whereby it surprises weeds, retains moisture and slowly incorporates into the soil with the help of worms and buggs. If you dig in half-composted material it doesn't break down as well since it needs air in the process.) If you have any questions about composting, feel free to use the comment field below and I shall answer as best I can! Home made compost really is a gardeners gold, and I am sure my garden wouldn't be even half as abundant if I didn't take such good care of the soil.