The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Compost Happens

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

If your heart rate increases at the sight of steaming compost than you are truly a serious gardener. Now barring some traumatic childhood experience with compost, compost induced heart palpitations indicate an unrelenting optimism about the future or a slightly warped personality if you happen to be married to a garden fanatic. To a serious gardener, compost invokes visions of healthy luxuriant plants, tomatoes the size of softballs and roses fit for a queen.

Fall is a great time to make compost from all those leaves and garden debris and also a great time to add compost to your soil.

Compost happens. Organic matter breaks down or decomposes eventually, except when it gets buried in a landfill. Remind me to tell you the story of the 25-year-old undecomposed hot dog found in a landfill. Organic matter decomposition takes place whether we are around or not. However, as gardeners we can speed the composting process.

Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic materials (stuff that use to be alive) using aerobic bacteria (ones that need oxygen, not the smelly anaerobic kind) and fungi, but also protozoans, millipedes, beetles and worms.

Now you may be wondering if you have to go out and buy a bag of protozoans for your compost pile. Compost piles are kind of a "field of dreams" proposition.... Build it and they will come. There are no magic enzymes or Dr. D. Com Pose elixirs.

Garden soil or finished compost has all the necessary microbes and creatures in it. Managing a compost pile is just helping these guys to do their job by providing the food, moisture and oxygen they need.

You don't need a degree in chemistry before you can compost anything. Once you understand the basic principles, the methods and containers for composting can be as diverse as the gardener. Composting is really no more complicated than baking a cake.

Most of the ingredients for the compost pile will be clippings and plants from the garden and landscape. Leaves and grass clippings may be the largest components. Bags of leaves can be saved to add to the pile in summer.

Some items such as meat and bones should not be put in the compost pile since they can attract rodents, raccoons and dogs. Dog and cat manure should also be left out since it can carry disease organisms. Although a well-managed pile should kill most disease organisms, you may also want to leave out obviously diseased plants.

A great mix of materials is two parts grass clippings to one part leaves. Or just remember two parts green, moist stuff with one part brown, dry stuff (straw etc.). Layer these in six to eight inch layers capped with a sprinkling of compost or soil.

Some items such as corn cobs, twigs and citrus rinds will take longer to decompose. The rate of composting depends on the surface area of the materials (the smaller the pieces the faster the decomposition), moisture, oxygen, temperature, carbon:nitrogen ratio of added materials, size of the compost pile and frequency of turning the pile. Frequent turning when the pile heats up will speed decomposition. This list may sound complicated. Just remember the mantra….. compost happens.

Finished compost is "black gold" to gardeners. Use compost instead of peat moss. Compost loosens heavy clay soils, improves water-holding capacity of sandy soils, adds all the wonderful microbes and fungi back into the soil and adds important plant nutrients.

Check with your local extension office for more info on composting or check out our website at

Need compost? Then go to the Landscape Recycling Center at 1210 East University in Urbana (PH: 217-344-5323). Screened garden compost is half price through October for only $10 / cu. yard - while supplies last.

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