Cleaning out the vegetable garden in fall is a satisfying experience, but often we don’t know what to do with all that organic matter. It’s tempting to just pile it up in a corner and leave it to rot. While everything eventually does rot and that pile will, in time, become usable compost, it’s better to manage your compost pile to create an active composting process that will produce better compost faster.
Instead of just tossing the organic debris in a corner, build a bin system made from old pallets or boards and start layering your organic matter. The compost pile should have brown (high-carbon) materials and green (high-nitrogen) materials mixed together in a ratio of 3 to 4 parts brown to 1 part green. Sort your vegetable garden debris into brown and green piles based on its color. For example, fall peas, still-green squash plants, or green beans would be considered green materials, while dead tomato vines or potato vines would be considered brown materials. Check any materials you’ll be adding to be sure they are not diseased or infested with insects. You might have a lot of green materials, but few brown materials. You can use garden soil, old compost, hay, or straw as a brown substitute to build the pile.
When the brown and green materials are ready, construct the pile, starting with a 6-inch layer of brown materials at the bottom. To improve air flow and speed up decomposition, you might even place a layer of corn or sunflower stalks at the bottom of the pile. On top of the brown layer, add a 1- to 2-inch layer of green materials. Keep alternating green and brown materials until you reach the top of the bin. Moisten and cover. If properly prepared, the pile should heat up this fall. If it doesn’t heat up, check the moisture level. The pile should be the consistency of a damp sponge. Add water if needed, or if the pile is too wet, add more brown materials.