CREATING COMPOST…a key part of a healthy ORGANIC GARDEN…
Compost is the ultimate soil food or nutrient so it follows that a compost pile is something every organic gardener needs. Composting is simple…unless you make it more complicated than it needs to be…AND, a very rewarding way to recycle garden and kitchen waste.
Some folks have raised composting to somewhat of an art form but there really is no great mystery associated with the process. Basic composting requires little physical effort and even less thought. After all, composting has been going on long before the first humans decided what to do with all the grass and leaves and manure and food waste. Think about the forest floor…
Yard debris and kitchen waste make up roughly 20% of landfill refuse. Virtually all of this organic waste could and should be transformed into compost.
So, what is compost? The material [humus-rich] that you get as the result of the decomposition or break-down of organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, animal manure from herbivores, vegetable and fruit peelings & other food scraps, tea leaves and coffee grounds and so forth. And, if it’s all together in a big pile with lots of microbial activity and earthworms, it breaks down to form rich crumbly humus material…simple!
SOUNDS MESSY, HOW DO I DO IT? At the heart of the composting process is the COMPOST PILE. All you need to get started is a minimum space of 3x3x3 to get the right mass of critical material.
BIN THERE…compost piles can be attractive structures incorporated into the garden or as utilitarian as a wire cage /bin…or simply, a pile surrounded on three sides by hay bales. I prefer a three-part wire bin, home-made, with one section for making compost, one section for dry materials, and the third section to start a new pile while the first pile continues to break down. Composting should take place in the open, on the ground…in the sun or shade and on a well-drained site! Lots of microbes and earthworms in the soil will work to break down the material. There is absolutely no need for big cans or tumblers up on stilts…unless you make that choice. Then you will need to make sure there are plenty of stimulating materials to help breakdown the mass…earthworms can’t crawl up the legs to get into a big can on stilts!
DUNG THAT…Care and feeding of the compost pile…organic matter consists of carbon and nitrogen in varying proportions. All compost “formulas” rely on the same essential ingredients…nitrogen, carbon, water and air. Much like what people need:
Dry, brown material, such as dead leaves, pine needles, straw/hay or sawdust is high in carbon. In order for the carbon or brown materials to break down you need…green material…that organic material listed previously.
Manure and fresh green materials are high in nitrogen. Brown and green materials should be combined to create a carbon-to-nitrogen mix at a ratio of 4-1…sort of, and that’s as scientific as I can be! I don’t get stressed out about proper proportions! A good balance can be made by using four parts leaves to one part kitchen scraps or fresh grass clippings. NOTE: Kitchen materials break down faster if chopped or put in a blender first. Past-date juices, coffee grounds, peelings, egg shells…nectar for the worm gods. I keep an old blender in the garden shed for this task. Not absolutely necessary, just a choice!
Start with a layer of dry or brown materials, good manure and some leaves and/or alfalfa hay. You can add earthworms…order from garden center or on-line during the right time of year…or just wait for them to show up. Remember to water in moderate amounts. The mixture should be moist but not soggy. Turn or fluff the pile every so often or once a week OR whenever you can, just to add air to the pile! The more air you add by turning and lifting, the faster the break down process. Bury any wet kitchen scraps in the center of the pile OR cover with dry materials. This will avoid attracting flies…which lead to rather unpleasant creepy crawlies…This has happened to me and I usually just throw dried molasses, blood meal or a bag of sugar on top of the crawlies, turn the pile and let Nature happen!
NOW, your compost pile becomes a feeding station for microorganisms, protozoa, bacteria, pill bugs, earthworms, slugs, snails and MANY OTHERS. As they all feed, they break down organic matter into carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium…roughly! This process heats up the pile to about 140 F to 160 F, which will usually kill any weed seeds and disease organisms. On a cold winter day you can actually see the “steam” rise from the pile when you turn it…if you’re working it properly.
Why does it steam? You have a large community of microscopic critters happily feeding and breaking down material to create compost! It’s like the air coming from YOU when it’s cold and you see your breath!
SO, supply your tiny workers with the right food, warm temperatures, moisture and oxygen and in exchange you’ll get nutrient-rich humus or COMPOST!
Food waste MUST BE decomposed by the micro flora before an earthworm can consume the waste. An earthworm does not have teeth, therefore, it can only ingest waste material as it decomposes. Earthworms receive most of their nutrition from the micro flora. WOW, can I be more boring!
AND, it is so simple to do…once I have a good mix of green and brown materials started in a pile I usually add some good “near-to-finished” compost filled with plenty of earthworms and castings to get the pile going. It is important to keep the pile slightly moist…not wet or soupy…moist enough for a handful to hold together somewhat.
COMPOST WILL BE READY WHEN IT LOOKS RICH, DARK AND CRUMBLY, AND SMELLS LIKE SWEET EARTH. JUST LET MOTHER NATURE DO HER JOB!
*pile doesn’t heat up…add more nitrogen; if dry, add water and try turning the pile…dry molasses, blood meal, manure or even a simple 5lb. bag of sugar will heat the pile
*pile smells bad…add more carbon or brown/dry material; pile may be too wet so turn it to add air; GOOD COMPOST has an earthy aroma.
*material doesn’t break down…shred or chop material to make smaller pieces before adding to pile; add more green material; aerobic and anaerobic bacteria will begin the process.
DON’T BE FOOLED BY STARTERS AND BAGS OF THIS AND THAT…MICROORGANISMS ARE ALL AROUND US AND WILL BE PULLED INTO THE COMPOST PILE.
I plant a lot of comfrey around my garden which is an ideal companion plant, a choke crop and..it can be used as an activator for the compost pile helping it speed up the process in much the same way as manure.
How do I know when it is ready? You’ll have a pile of rich brownish-black, sweet but earthy smelling material full of earthworms…now, top dress before mulching planted areas, layer it on your garden or work it carefully into planting beds.
What other things can I add to the compost pile? Well, there’s so much…shredded newspaper, dryer lint, natural fibers fabric scraps, fireplace wood ashes, tea leaves and bags, paper egg cartons, leftover veggies, cooked pasta, sawdust, cardboard, corncobs, seaweed, crab shells…I was once told by a longtime organic farmer in Texas…”You can compost anything that has lived and died!” Eeueueeue-w-w-w-w!
Do I still need fertilizer with compost? Working compost into the soil in the fall will allow it to slowly decompose and provide a good mix of nutrients for plants by the following spring…Plants and soil will begin to benefit from a balanced fertilizer in the spring as they begin to grow.
Compost does contain all the primary nutrients, trace minerals and beneficial organisms that plants need to grow and thrive. These nutrients release slowly into the soil, encouraging plants to develop strong healthy root systems. It will also fight disease in the soil and put your soil back into balance. Compost will improve the texture and moisture-holding capacity of soil. It will loosen clay soil and bulk up sandy soil.
But, it does continue to break down and eventually become nutritionally unbalanced… which is why I usually throw out some good organic fertilizer or composted manure after a few months.
Making compost is a good way to recycle garden debris…I do not add sticks, twigs, pinecones, evergreens or any other thick woody stems to the pile…takes too long. I chop them, clip them, shred them, or whatever, and compost the material in a separate area. This provides some cover for beneficials and small critters while it breaks down. The smaller the particles, the faster they compost.
IF, you have too many leaves for the compost pile…make leaf mould, A WONDERFUL SOIL AMENDMENT OR MATERIAL TO USE AS MULCH. You can make it the same way Mother Nature creates the forest floor. Just pile up leaves in an area that can be left undisturbed…wet them down and let them decompose. To speed up the process, shred the leaves or run them over with a mulching lawn mower FIRST.
MATERIALS THAT SHOULD NOT BE ADDED TO THE COMPOST PILE …coal and charcoal ashes, meat and most dairy wastes, pet litter, plants treated with synthetic chemical pesticides or herbicides or diseased garden plants.
Can I compost during the winter? Of course, the process will slow down some in colder temperatures but microorganisms in compost will continue to eat…just a little slower on really cold days.
Okay, WHY did I do this and now what do I do with all this great organic material? Thrifty gardeners know…
Composting is a very efficient way to recycle household, yard and garden “wastes” and turn them into a perfect soil amendment or fertilizer for your garden and lawn.
Compost does protect plants and soil from disease and insect problems
Compost improves the soil structure and ability to hold moisture.
Use compost to top dress lawns and garden beds…fertilizer!
Use compost to provide nutrient for new garden beds!
Use compost as mulch!
Use well-aged compost as potting soil.
True compost is “alive” and is the best way to inoculate the soil with micro flora, nourish plants, and is the best route to provide healthy disease-free soil and plants…on an ORGANIC program!