Southwest Regional Reports

How to Make Great Compost in the Southern Plains

Our region’s weather, climate, and plant life influence this rewarding process

half rotted compost
This compost is only about half rotten and still has some decomposing to do. You can tell by its texture that it is consistently moist, which aids in decomposition. Photo: Karen Beaty

One of the secrets to a successful, productive garden is compost. Although you can buy commercial compost in bags or in bulk from gardening stores, it’s easy and enjoyable to make your own for free. Here are a few tips for making compost in the Southern Plains.

live oak litter
This live oak litter makes great compost fodder. Photo: Karen Beaty

Compost ingredients

Any organic matter can be turned into compost over time. What sort of organic matter you have available depends on where you live and therefore what plants are found in your area. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, garden plant debris, wood chips, sawdust, and old mulch, hay, or straw are all common additions to the compost pile. In Central Texas where I live, my compost pile includes a lot of leaves from live oak (Quercus virginiana, Zones 8–10) and hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis, Zones 2–9) because those are the most common deciduous trees in my area. Our other most common tree, ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei, Zones 6–9), is a conifer and therefore doesn’t lose its leaves every winter. However, old juniper needles do accumulate under the tree over time, creating a fine layer of juniper duff that is great to throw in a compost pile. In East Texas and other areas where pines (Pinus spp. and cvs., Zones 2–9) dominate, pine needles can be added to compost piles (or used as mulch).

There are entire books written about how to make compost, including detailed information about the ratio of dry, carbon-rich “brown” materials to wet, nitrogen-rich “green” materials in your pile, which is usually given as 2:1. These details are useful if you are trying to make compost as quickly as possible or on a large scale. I use a much less scientific approach in my home compost pile, adding all the organic material I can get my hands on and knowing that it will all rot nicely if I remember a few key guidelines.

wire mesh compost pile
This wire mesh compost pile is in a semi-shady woodsy area where it won’t dry out too quickly. Photo: Karen Beaty

Pile placement

Many gardening books recommend placing your compost pile in a sunny location. In the Southern Plains, we have such hot, dry summers that compost piles in sunny locations dry out far too quickly. In our climate, it’s a better idea to place compost piles in the shade; there they can remain moist, which accelerates the composting process. An ideal location would provide shade but not prevent the pile from receiving rainfall, which brings me to my next point.

Watering your pile

An active compost pile must be damp like a wrung-out sponge. The organisms that break down the organic matter simply can’t survive in a dry pile, so if the pile doesn’t get enough rain, then it helps to water it by hand. During our extended dry periods, it is a good idea to put a sprinkler or soaker hose on your compost pile every now and then to get it thoroughly damp (but not so wet that it’s drenched and draining water). It should be consistently moist. As far as how often to water your pile, that depends on a number of factors. Just remember this: If you stick your hand down in the pile and it’s dry, then it’s time to water. Keeping the pile damp will keep it active, which will break it down more quickly.

turning compost pile
The more often you can turn your compost pile, the faster your ingredients will break down. Photo: Karen Beaty

Turning your pile

No matter what region you live in, it’s important to turn your compost pile regularly. The more you turn your pile, the faster it will break down. Turning the pile fluffs and mixes the ingredients and causes them to decompose more quickly and more uniformly. A frequently turned pile leaves you with a fine, even-textured product at the end of the process. The most important time to turn your compost pile is when it’s most active, which in our region is spring, early summer, and fall. Summer is too hot and dry for maximum microbial activity, and winter is too cool. If you can turn your pile frequently all year round, great. If you can’t, focus on turning it during those more active seasons. If you aren’t in a hurry at all, you can turn your pile once or twice a year. If you want to speed it up, you can turn it as much as weekly.

These simple tricks will help you have a successful compost pile in our climate. I’ve had compost piles of all sizes, from tiny bins in an apartment to huge garden debris piles that I turned with a skid steer. No matter what your scale, the tricks are the same: Add all the organic materials you’ve got, keep it moist, turn it regularly, and enjoy watching it break down!

For more information on composting, read along here.

—Karen Beaty is a forestry specialist in the Wildland Conservation Division of Austin, Texas.

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