How to make compost

Turn kitchen scraps and garden waste into "black gold" for your plants!

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Hello, friends!

We’re knee-deep into spring gardening season and, if you’re lucky, elbow deep in compost. But if you’re not, no worries — I’m here to change that.

Last week, I wrote about the benefits of compost, and today I’m going to share the how-tos along with my recipe for decomposing your kitchen scraps and garden waste into “black gold” for your plants.

Where, oh where?

First things first: Before you can start a compost pile, you have to figure out where you’re going to place it. Even though compost is technically rotting organic matter, if proportioned correctly it doesn’t smell bad, so there’s no need for concern. The best location for compost is close enough so that it’s convenient for you to add ingredients and tend to it, but far away enough so you don’t have to look at it while you’re barbecuing if you don’t want to.

If you have the means and if aesthetics are important, you can buy a fancy compost bin or tumbler for roughly $50 to $300. On the other end of the spectrum, you can simply start piling up your compost ingredients in a designated section of the yard. Some might consider that unsightly, but if it doesn't bother you or if you have an out-of-the-way spot, it's an option. Or you can make your own compost holder by forming a 10- foot length of chicken wire into a circle, attaching the ends with wire, and inserting 4 wooden or metal posts around the inside of the perimeter, staking them into the ground. A smaller ring might require only one stake or post.

Know your “colors”

Your compost pile should comprise 50% (or more) of “brown” materials. Browns are rich in carbon, and many are in fact brown. They include dried, spent perennials, autumn leaves, leather, twigs, paper and hay. Browns are what help keep the heap from producing odors and becoming an olfactory nightmare.

The remainder (50% or less of the total) should be green materials. “Greens” are rich in nitrogen and include grass clippings, fruit and veggie scraps, and freshly picked weeds (but not those that have already gone to seed). Greens are usually (but not always) green, or at least fresher than browns. Cornstarch packing peanuts and coffee grinds, for instance, though not green, are rich in nitrogen so even though they defy the color-coding principles here, they are considered greens. Greens help speed the decomposition of your rotting garbage.

Now what?

Once you’ve started adding ingredients to your pile, sprinkle it lightly with a hose, and do so again whenever you add a new layer or notice the pile drying out. It should be kept moist, but not soggy.

Sit back and let nature do its thing

As ingredients decompose, bacteria will heat up the center of the pile, so it's important to turn the heap regularly to ensure even decomposition. This can be done with a pitchfork or garden spade on an open pile or holder, or with a turn of the crank on some fancy tumbler models.

In the spring, incorporate compost into new garden beds. Sprinkle some on your lawn and gently rake in, and add a few handfuls to planting holes. You can even top dress your beds with compost for a super-nutritious mulch.


You should never include fats (meat or fish table scraps, dairy products, oils, etc.), diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed in your pile. And never add materials that don't decompose, like plastic or glass. Bird and rabbit droppings and horse manure are OK, but kitty litter and dog poop are not. As a rule of thumb, excrement from carnivores is off-limits.

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📬 Ask Jessica

DEAR JESSICA: Spring is a perfect time for sharing plants with neighbors. It has become a tradition of mine when thinning out perennials to share rooted excess plants with neighbors. This year, my neighbor returned the favor by sharing a large bulb of what looks like a tropical plant. All I know about it is it wants full sun. Since he received it from a friend of a friend, we don't know what we have. Can you identify this beauty? All I can tell you is that the largest leaf measures 12 inches already. I just planted it this weekend with some amaryllis bulbs around it. —Janette Diehlmann (Seaford, NY)

DEAR JANETTE: That’s a canna, and you’re right — it’s a tropical plant.

Cannas are available in a wide array of colors, from soft, pale shades like salmon and pink to bold, dramatic hues of yellow, orange or red.

Plant the bulbs (rhizomes, actually) in containers or in the ground in late May, or for a headstart, you can start them indoors in potting mix in April and set by a sunny window or under grow lights. Keep the soil lightly moist and fertilize plants monthly, and to encourage more blooms throughout summer, deadhead spent flowers.

Canna requires at least six hours of full sun daily and moist, but not soggy, soil.

After the first light frost turns foliage brown, cut plants down to 6 inches and dig them up (or remove them from their pots, if growing in containers). Rinse the root system, separate bulblets and allow to air-dry completely, then place the bulblets in peat moss in a box in which you've cut some holes for ventilation. Place in a cool, dark place (a crawl space or cellar is ideal). Check on them monthly and spritz with water if they look like they're starting to shrivel. Discard rotted roots, and replant the others again next spring.

👏 Sunday shoutout

Elaine Rosselli is enjoying her blooming forsythia! The East Northport, NY, resident also grows a garden full of perennials including, hydrangeas, foxgloves, clematis, marigolds, zinnias, irises, coneflowers and more.

Send in your photo and description of your garden, and you might be featured next!

💡 If you do one thing this week…

Fertilize your tulips! This will help them build energy stores for next year.

For more daily gardening tips — 365 of them! — grab one of my day-by-day gardening calendars.

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📧 Send me your feedback!

I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.

Until next week, stay safe. Be well. And always keep your mind in the dirt. —Jessica

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