Composting – Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants.
How do you do it? How do you make good compost? I have been asked that question so many times!
The short and easy answer is…
Compost is made up of 2 basic components, in a ratio of 1 part “a” to 25 parts “b” :
a. Wet green waste – kitchen scraps, grass clippings, etc.
b. Brown materials – dried leaves, straw, paper, etc.
Mix it all together and walk away. To speed up the process, stir it around every once in a while and in a short time you’ll have that black gold that every organic garden depends on for success.
The longer and more detailed answer is…
The organic matter provided in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus will be produced naturally by the feeding of microorganisms, so few if any soil amendments will need to be added.
1. I think everyone knows by now not to throw away kitchen scraps — add them to the compost pile. Kitchen scraps are typically high in nitrogen, which helps heat up the compost pile and speed up the composting process. Egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels and scraps are all outstanding materials to add.
2. If you’re composting with a compost pile, bigger is often better. Heat builds up with a big pile. Ideally you want the internal temperature to get up to the 150ºF or 65ºC mark. You don’t want to get much bigger than about 3 feet by 3 feet though, unless you have some sort of powered equipment to help manage a bigger pile.
3. Keep the compost aerated! If you are composting with a tumbling composter, make sure you turn it whenever you add new materials. If you are composting with a pile, or in a static (non-tumbling) compost bin, be sure to mix up the contents so that the pile gets oxygen and can break down effectively.
4. A compost pile needs moisture to keep the composting process active, so don’t let the compost completely dry out.
5. Don’t keep your compost too wet either, so that it gets soggy and starts to stink. Just as too dry is bad, too wet is also something that you should avoid.
6. Too much of any one material will slow down the composting process. If you have all leaves, all grass clippings or an overload of any other single type of material, it can throw off the balance of the pile. In general, it’s good to keep a mix of green and brown material.
Almost any organic material is suitable for composting. Your composter or compost pile needs a proper ratio of carbon-rich materials, or “browns,” and nitrogen-rich materials, or “greens.” Among the brown materials are dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. Nitrogen materials are fresh or green, such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps.
Mixing certain types of materials or changing the proportions can make a difference in the rate of decomposition. Achieving the best mix is more an art gained through experience than an exact science. The ideal ratio approaches 25 parts browns to 1 part greens. Judge the amounts roughly equal by weight. Too much carbon will cause the pile to break down too slowly, while too much nitrogen can cause odour. The carbon provides energy for the microbes, and the nitrogen provides protein.
Leaves represent a large percentage of total yard waste. If you can grind them in a gas or electric leaf shredder or mow over them, they will reduce in size making them easier to store until you can use them in the pile, and they will decompose faster – an issue with larger leaves. They are loaded with minerals brought up from the tree roots and are a natural source of carbon. A few leaf species such as live oak, southern magnolia, and holly trees are too tough and leathery for easy composting.
* Avoid all parts of the black walnut tree as they contain a plant poison that survives composting. Eucalyptus leaves can be toxic to other plants. And avoid using poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac.
Pine Needles need to be chopped or shredded, as they decompose slowly. They are covered with a thick, waxy coating. In very large quantities, they can acidify your compost, which would be a good thing if you have alkaline soils.
Grass Clippings break down quickly and contain as much nitrogen as manure. Since fresh grass clippings will clump together, become anaerobic, and start to smell, mix them with plenty of brown material. If you have a lot of grass clippings to compost, spread them on the driveway or other surface to bake in the sun for at least a day. Once it begins to turn pale or straw-like, it can be used without danger of souring. Avoid grass clippings that contain pesticide or herbicide residue, unless a steady rain has washed the residue from the grass blades.
Kitchen Refuse includes melon rinds, carrot peelings, tea bags, apple cores, banana peels – almost everything that cycles through your kitchen. The average household produces more than 200 lbs of kitchen waste every year. You can successfully compost all forms of kitchen waste.
However, meat, meat products, dairy products, and high-fat foods like salad dressings and peanut butter, can present problems. Meat scraps and the rest will decompose eventually, but will smell bad and attract pests.
Egg shells are a wonderful addition, but decompose slowly, so should be crushed. All additions to the compost pile will decompose more quickly if they are chopped up some before adding.
To collect your kitchen waste, you can keep a small compost pail in the kitchen to bring to the pile every couple days. Keep a lid on the container to discourage insects. When you add kitchen scraps to the compost pile, cover them with about 8″ of brown material to reduce visits by flies or critters.
Wood Ashes from a wood burning stove or fireplace can be added to the compost pile. Ashes are alkaline, so add no more than 2 gallon-sized buckets-full to a pile with 3′x3′x3′ dimensions. They are especially high in potassium. Fire place ash is a good source of carbon.
* Don’t use coal ashes, as they usually contain large amounts of sulphur and iron that can injure your plants. Used charcoal briquettes don’t decay much at all, so it’s best not to use them.
Garden Refuse should make the trip to the pile. All of the spent plants, thinned seedlings, and deadheaded flowers can be included. Most weeds and weed seeds are killed when the pile reaches an internal temperature above 130ºF , but some may survive. To avoid problems try not to compost weeds with persistent root systems, or weeds that are going to seed.
Spoiled Hay or Straw makes an excellent carbon base for a compost pile, especially in a place where few leaves are available. Hay contains more nitrogen than straw but may contain weed seeds, so the pile must have a high interior temperature. The straw’s little tubes will also keep the pile breathing.
Manure is one of the finest materials you can add to any compost pile. It contains large amounts of both nitrogen and beneficial microbes. You’ll see from other and future posts that I favour sheep manure but manure for composting can come from bats, sheep, ducks, pigs, goats, cows, pigeons, and any other vegetarian animal. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid manure from carnivores, as it can contain dangerous pathogens, one of the reasons I dislike using chicken manure. Most manures are considered “hot” when fresh, meaning it is so rich in nutrients that it can burn the tender roots of young plants or overheat a compost pile, killing off earthworms and friendly bacteria. If left to age a little, however, these materials are fine to use.
Manure is easier to transport and safer to use if it is rotted, aged, or composted before it’s used. Layer manure with carbon-rich brown materials such as straw or leaves to keep your pile in balance.
Seaweed is an excellent source of nutrient-rich composting material. Use the hose to wash off the salt before sending it to the compost pile.
The list of organic materials which can be added to the compost pile is long. The following is a partial list: corncobs, cotton waste, restaurant or farmer’s market scraps, grapevine waste, sawdust, greensand, hair, hoof and horn meal, hops, peanut shells, paper and cardboard, rock dust, sawdust, feathers, cottonseed meal, blood meal, bone meal, citrus wastes, coffee, alfalfa, and ground seashells.
There are industrial and commercial waste products you may have access to in abundance. Many coffee shops or grocers are happy to set aside their waste, if someone is willing to pick it up on a regular basis.
Why do I call it Black Gold? Simply, because once the compost has turned that rich dark brown/black colour it’s worth to the garden is comparable to it’s weight in gold!