Good compost has a nice carbon-nitrogen balance, keeping the bacteria and microorganisms that break it all down happy and working hard. Good compost gets nice and hot; hot enough to kill weed seeds and some plant pathogens. And when it's all finished, good compost smells sweet and moist.
It's not hard to make good compost. But it requires a bit effort. It requires having certain ingredients available to you. And, most frustrating of all, it requires time. Those of you who know me know that patience and I don't get together too often ;) I want results and I want them now!
So I build a pile in the usual way; a bit of this a bit of that. We have guinea pigs and a rabbit and their manure keeps up the nitrogen content, along with horse manure (Indi goes horse riding once a week) and we've just acquired some pigeons, so that mess gets chucked in too. I usually give the guineas some pea straw or sugar cane mulch for bedding, so that gets chucked in when it's spent, adding a bit of carbon to the equation. Add the odd newspaper, clumps of seaweed, vacuum cleaner stuff, occasional grass clippings and weeds pulled up from the garden ... etc etc.
Then I leave it. It starts to warm up a bit, and I might even turn it once if I'm feeling energetic. After about 4 weeks it usually settles and shrinks to about two thirds of the size. This is the point where I should probably turn it and allow it to heat back up and finish the job. Alas, this is the point where I decide it's DONE and start shovelling it onto the garden as mulch. The way I see it, half-cooked compost has multiple benefits (besides me not having to wait another month or two):
More soil critters: spreading compost over the garden at this stage brings the worms up for the feast. Worms coming up from the deep ground aerate and loosen the soil, help to munch down the organic matter and then poop it all out, leaving wonderful rich castings. Especially useful when starting a new garden; the busy little soil critters do the hard work of breaking up the ground for me :)
Heat: Because it's still working, breaking down, heat is being generated. I find this especially beneficial when planting out before the ground has really warmed up, as it helps to spur my seedlings on.
Volunteers: By far my most favourite side effect! Plants popping up here there and everywhere from seeds that haven't broken down in the composting process ...
A cucumber wandering its way around the dwarf beans
A beautiful avocado seedling, one of 9 that have sprouted so far!
A delight to my eyes ... a tangle of of volunteer pumpkins and tomatoes growing among the corn.
I may not have neat piles of deep, dark, rich humus waiting to spread over my garden, but I do have lots of warm soil, lots of life within the ground and best of all, lots of healthy plants.