Compost heaps and bins are traditional places to make compost but bins and piles are not necessary to the compost process. These three methods can compost typical garden and kitchen plant waste without a compost bin and with little work on your part. You won’t have wheelbarrows of compost to brag about, but you won’t have bins to tend either.
Composting is just the gardening term for the natural aerobic decay of organic material, the odorless decay caused by fungi and some bacteria when they have ample oxygen. Compost, the finished product, is a dark, crumbly material that resembles potting soil and smells like fresh dirt. It improves soil texture and water retention by adding organic material.
Scatter composting is the easiest compost method of all. It is the “drop it and forget about it” method. When you are weeding your garden or dead-heading your flowerbeds, drop the weeds and soft trimmings onto the dirt between the rows of vegetables or behind the flowers. By the time you till the soil again, the bottom layers will have turned into some sort of compost. Rake out the intact material and use it as a mulch to give it more time to compost itself. There’s no deadline and no grades.
Trench composting is for gardeners who don’t want the hassle of a compost heap, but want a tidy garden. Plant your garden as usual. Between two rows of veggies or behind a row of flowers, dig a shallow trench, piling the dirt along the trench. As you weed and prune, or discard kitchen waste, dump it in a short section of the trench and replace the dirt in that section. When you fill the trench completely, dig another one and continue. With typical garden watering, a 4-inch deep layer of potato peelings, coffee grounds and weeds will compost itself by the next spring. Change the position of the rows every year so the old trench becomes a planting area and the old row becomes a trench.
Sheet composting is best for gardens with a large supply of organic material, or as a remedy for poor soil. In the fall, spread thick (6-8 inch) layers of old animal manure, dry leaves, straw, apple pomace or whatever you can get in large quantities. Leave it over the winter, letting the sun and rain begin to break it down. In the spring, till it into the garden area and plant as usual.
A variation of sheet composting, called “no-till gardening“, uses a heavy mulch of straw, wood chips, or dry leaves. As the mulch decomposes, becoming compost on the bottom layers, the gardener adds more on top. This method doesn’t require plowing or thorough tilling because the gardener pulls back the mulch only enough to plant the seeds or seedlings.
Composting tips: Don’t try to compost thick layers of fresh grass clippings: either let the clippings dry or compost very thin layers. Grass is the plant material most likely to turn into a stinking slimy mess.
Don’t compost meat, oils, or animal waste with these methods … unless you have a large compost pile to bury them in, they stink or attract scavengers.