Friday, May 15, 2009

Composting



I've been composting for about 10 years now and it's become second nature to me. The other day my neighbor finally purchased the Compost Tumbler she'd been talking about for more than a year. I'm proud to say that I'm the one who inspired her to start composting after she saw my Compost Tumbler. Anyway, she was asking me questions about getting started with composting and I realized I've accumulated a good bit of knowledge over the years. Composting is a beneficial practice for many reasons: it keeps tons of organic material out of landfills, it's a great environmental practice, and a cheap way to add nutrients back into soil. Applying compost to your gardens or flowerbeds improves soil's texture, structure, aeration ability, and water holding capacity. When using compost there's less need for other fertilizers and plants grow stronger and healthier. Worms love compost as well, and worms are very good for the soil.

I live in the suburbs and open piles aren't allowed, so I had to purchase a compost bin. There are now many varieties available. Most garden supply sites carry at least one or two types of compost bins or tumblers. Otherwise, if you're in a more rural area, piles can be contained in chicken wire, bricks, or wood pallets. Or you can just create an open pile. You have to have a large enough pile for effective composting. The best size is from 3'x3'x3' to 5'x5'x5'. You want a purchased bin to contain the same amount of compost. As far as placement of your pile or bin, you want a level, well drained area that is accessible from all sides. A sunny location is also helpful, as the heat from the sun will speed decomposition. If you live in the suburbs it's best to find a spot away from other neighbors. I have mine int he very back corner of the yard. It's a little wet in spring, but since I'm using a bin, the compost isn't affected (just my boots!).

To start a compost pile place 4"- 6" of chopped brush, wood chips, or twigs on the ground. This allows for good air circulation. You can skip this part if you're using a bin or tumbler. Alternate 2"- 4" layer of green organic material containing nitrogen and 4"- 6" of brown organic material containing carbon. Green materials would include things like vegetables, fruits, flowers, plant clippings, grass clippings, and coffee grounds. Brown material would include things like dead leaves, straw, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper, cornstalks, cotton rags, nut shells, and pine needles. Maintain a ratio of 1 part green and 2- 3 parts brown. Garden soil, manure, or bone meal can be added between layers to introduce microorganisms (the little guys who do all the hard work of breaking the pile down). Finally, water the pile so it's moist, but not wet. You'll want to turn the pile at least once a week in order to introduce oxygen. With a tumbler you can turn it every few days. I actually do a combination of fluffing and turning the compost with a pitchfork, as well as turning the entire tumbler. It takes about 6 months or so, depending on conditions to produce finished compost. When optimal conditions are kept the center of the pile may reach between 90*F and 140*F. Use a soil thermometer to measure the temperature. I added a bunch of fresh grass clipping to my tumbler yesterday and the pile heated up to 155*F today! I think it's sort of cool to watch the steam coming off a hot pile- I know the process is working.
These are things that are safe to put in compost: leaves, grass clippings, plants, nut shells, straw and hay, fruits, vegetables, grains, egg shells, coffee grounds or tea leaves, sawdust and wood chips, dryer lint, shredded paper and newspaper, dead flowers, and certain manures.

These are things you DON'T want to put in compost: meats, fish, dairy products, oil or fatty foods, bones, cat and dog droppings, cat litter, diseased or insect ridden plants, invasive or poisonous weeds, ashes from coal or charcoal, branches or limbs, and yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides.

Finished compost can be used as a mulch or a top dressing in your garden. In the fall I'll usually dig a big batch of compost into the vegetable garden, even if it's not completely finished. By spring the soil will be easier to work with and very "alive" with microorganisms, worms, and other "good guy" bugs.

Composting is a wonderful practice for so many reasons. It reduces your ecological footprint by reducing the garbage entering a landfill. I barely throw out any garbage- only things that can't be reused or composted. Of course I recycle all my metal, glass, and plastic.
Composting is an inexpensive way to amend the soil and reduce the need for fertilizers. I only use a small amount of organic fertilizer in my vegetable garden, and none for my flowers. Composting conserves natural resources such as water, organic matter, and nutrients. It's an environmentally friendly way to improve the health of the soil and the plants growing in it. And it's easy. If you don't feel like turning a pile, just leave it sit. It will take more than a year to fully decompose, but nature will take it's course.

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