Article courtesy of Garden Gate Magazine
Compost is nature’s free gift to gardeners and worth its weight in gold. It not only adds nutrients to the soil, it also has the special ability to do two things at once: It helps soil retain water and nutrients and it keeps soil well-aerated.
The very same process of decomposition that creates compost from yard and kitchen waste is a key to sustaining life on earth. Every living thing that dies unlocks nutrients for the following generations of plants and animals. Incidentally, even “finished” compost continues breaking down at a slow rate in the garden before becoming stable humus (a complex mix of minerals and organic residue). Most compost is not fully broken down, which benefits gardeners because particles of unfinished material improve soil texture by creating tiny air pockets as it decays. This further promotes the microbial activity essential for healthy soil.
The simplest way to make compost is to pick an out-of- the-way place in your yard and start a pile of grass clippings, raked leaves, other yard waste and non-meat kitchen scraps (meat will compost, but it attracts flies and rodents).
Every time you collect yard waste, add it to the pile. Within a couple of months you can begin scooping finished compost out from the bottom of the pile. Your compost should have plenty of sowbugs, worms and other small critters, which are at the top of the decomposer food chain, as well as centipedes and other predators, which, in turn, feed on the decomposers. These critters create no problems in the garden. However, if you plan to use compost for indoor plants, make sure you don’t bring in any sowbugs. They can be a nuisance indoors, congregating under and in houseplant containers.
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Turning the pileYou can make batches of compost more quickly by regularly turning the compost pile. An overly wet, unturned pile may also become smelly because a saturated, oxygen- poor pile encourages anaerobic (oxygen- intolerant) bacteria. These bacteria produce methane, which has that characteristic “sewer” smell.
A garden fork is the best tool for turning the pile because it helps break up matted grass clippings and other matter. A shovel or spade is OK, but more unwieldy to work with. Plus a fork grabs more of the compost at one time.
Don’t turn the pile before it’s ready. As microorganisms begin breaking down the matter, temperatures in the center of a good-sized pile reach 130 degrees or higher. Turning the compost at this point will actually slow down the composting process. The signal that compost is ready to turn is when the interior temperature of the pile drops to about the same temperature as the outer layer. Turning the pile at this point restarts the composting process by introducing air and new material into the center of the pile.
You can take the temperature of your pile with a special long-pronged compost thermometer (expect to spend about $20). Or you can do like I do and simply stick your hand into the pile. If the interior of the pile feels warmer than the surface, don’t turn it yet.
Recent tests indicate that inoculants (compost activators) containing “starter” microbes don’t significantly speed up the composting process. You can effectively activate a pile by tossing in a few handfuls of garden soil, which contains billions of microbes ready to multiply and go to work. Some gardeners also add fertilizer, bone meal and other amendments to make the finished compost more acid or alkaline. A soil test will tell whether you need to do this. Soil test kits are available from county extension agents and most garden centers.
Otherwise, let nature do the work. The one exception is if your pile primarily consists of low-nitrogen materialial like fall leaves, twigs or sawdust. Then you should add a half cup of high-nitrogen fertilizer such as 3-1-1 for every new foot of fresh organic material you add. If your pile contains high-nitrogen material, like grass clippings, weeds or other green foliage, you don’t need fertilizer.
The smaller the particles, the faster they compost. I use an axe or machete to chop up large items like dead sunflower stalks, grapevine prunings and woody waste before adding them to the pile. Vegetable and fruit scraps are fine for the compost pile as long as you mix them in. A mess of grapefruit rinds and wilted celery stalks can look pretty unsightly sitting on top.
Among the materials you should not put in your compost pile are coal and charcoal ashes, meat and dairy wastes, pet litter, diseased garden plants or plants recently treated with pesticides or herbicides.
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Using compost at the cabinWhen preparing new garden beds, I mix compost with existing garden soil at a ratio of one part compost to three parts soil. In established gardens, I top-dress seasonally with an inch of compost for an attractive mulch that supplies nutrients and holds moisture.
One myth about compost is that you never have to fertilize a well-composted garden. (If you work compost into your garden in the fall, it will slowly decompose and provide a good mix of nutrients for your plants by the following spring.) Fresh compost continues decomposing in the garden. At this stage it greatly improves soil structure but may still be nutritionally unbalanced. Your plants will still benefit from feedings of a balanced fertilizer.
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