The following information on compost for the small farm or homestead comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.
Compost plays such an important role and has so many uses that its manufacture is one of the fundamental processes of professional gardening. Whether your garden be large or small you should have a compost pile to supply the needs of your coldframes, hotbeds and greenhouses if no more.
Compost is specially prepared loam which contains all the elements of plant food added to it artificially. It is worked over for uniformity in composition and texture and is almost a fertilizer itself. If your soil is a heavy loam or a clay it will be greatly benefited if the compost contains a considerable proportion of sand, sifted anthracite coal ashes, muck, leaf mold, rotted sawdust, chaff from a straw stack, etc., all of which tend to lighten the soil with which mixed and when they decay to increase the content of humus.
One good way to make compost is as follows: In the autumn place wide boards an inch thick on edge so as to form a rectangle 6 or 8 feet wide. The length may be as desired. Fill this bin with fallen leaves well wetted and tramped down. On these place a 3″ x 4″ layer of sods upside down and close together. Next spread a 3″ or 4″ layer of manure, preferably from a cow stable, on top of the sod. Repeat these alternations of layers until the pile is 4′ or 5′ high. As it rises make each layer a little narrower than the one below so the completed pile in cross section will be like a letter A with a broad top. The finishing touch consists in covering the sloping side with 2″ or 3″ of good soil well pounded and flattened with a spade to make it firm. Make the top of the pile about 3′ across and hollow it out so as to form a basin 4″ to 6″ deep and nearly as long as the pile. Fill this with water in dry weather.
Besides the materials mentioned it is good to scatter ground bone, hardwood ashes, superphosphate, ground phosphate rock (“floats”) tankage, dried blood, or other fertilizer or materials rich in plant food upon the various layers so as to enrich the final compost. Ground limestone or lime liberally sprinkled on each layer will help break down the vegetable matter and “sweeten” the final compost.
So prepared the compost will be of special value where the soil is somewhat acid as well as more or less depleted in plant food. Always add to the pile anything that will readily decay and thus make plant food—vegetable and animal refuse, weeds or garbage free from fats and oils.
The main reasons for making such a pile in the autumn are that the seeds of weeds in the manure and the sods will become moist enough to swell, be frozen and destroyed; that there is usually abundance of material at that season and that time is generally less fully occupied than in spring. In case a pile cannot be conveniently made in the fall it may be made at any season when materials are available.
An autumn-made pile should stand until late the following summer when a sharp, square bladed spade should be used to slice the pile vertically downward so as to cut through all the layers. The sliced material is used to form another pile, the outer parts of the first being thrown on the inner part of the second to insure decay. When possible the pile may be allowed to stand for two years because the compost will “ripen” and be better than 1-year material.
All that is necessary in the final handling of such compost is to slice it vertically downward and pass the material through a mason’s sieve with a 1/2″ mesh to get rid of stones, clods and other debris.