Black Gold!

This is Compost in the Gardener’s World!

Composting is Mother Nature’s natural recycling method.  Think about it.  When the leaves, sticks, bark cover the forest floor, it begins to decay and returns to the soil where it enriches the living plant life.  Living plants benefit from the rich nutrients from the decomposed materials. When we make compost, we speed up this natural process as we build our compost pile.

Composting is a free (unless you decide to invest in commercial bins or tumblers) and easy way to recycle naturally by using decomposed materials and returning them to the earth where it will feed living plants.  Microscopic organisms turn the organic materials into a dark, rich organic fertilizer.

Benefits of Making Compost

1.  Recycle kitchen and yard waste
2.  Conditions the soil
3.  Helps the soil retain nutrients, water and air
4.  Protects the soil against drought
5.  Helps maintain a neutral pH
6.  Help protect plants from diseases
7.  Feeds earthworms
8.  Feeds microbial life in the soil
9.  Reduces the need for commercial fertilizers and pesticides

What Makes up Compost

The materials that go into compost are categorized into a two groups.  One is referred to as the Green category and the other is called the Brown category.

The Brown category is low in Nitrogen and includes dry dead plant materials like:

  • Straw is good for aeration which is vital to a good compost pile.  Straw mixed with manure from a farm is perfect and it breaks down more quickly than plain straw.
  • Dry Dead Leaves is an excellent brown addition to your compost pile.  Be aware that the type of leaf can affect the soil.  For example, Ash and popular leaves will raise the soil pH.
  • Sawdust from broad-leaf trees breaks down quickly while coniferous trees take longer.  Use sawdust in thin layers.
  • Wood Chips take longer to breakdown.  A better use of wood chips is in mulch.
  • Wood ashes can be used but only in limited amounts and only if the soil is acidic.
  • Bark
  • Shredded Cardboard
  • Corn Stalks should be cut up into smaller pieces
  • Shredded Newspaper without any colored ink
  • Peanut Shells
  • Peat Moss
  • Pine Needles
  • Stems, Sticks, Twigs should be broken up
  • dry vegetable stalks
  • Dead weeds

The Green category adds much needed Nitrogen and includes organic materials which are usually green like:

  • Grass clippings
  • Green leaves
  • Fruit and Vegetable waste
  • Green weeds
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Tea Bags
  • Fresh Manure
  • Kitchen waste
  • Egg Shells
  • Alfalfa hay is great, the greener the better – more nitrogen
  • Green hay is fine, but it usually contains lots of seeds
  • Algae
  • Clover
  • Garden Waste
  • Hedge clippings
  • Seaweed
  • Feathers
  • Fur
  • Hair

A good Brown to Green Ratio to keep in mind would be one third green to two thirds brown and add these materials in layers.  Too much green will slow down the decomposing process and lots of nitrogen will make your compost pile smell, heavy and slow down the process.  A good balance of Brown materials will allow for aeration which is needed for the busy little microorganisms to do their job.  You should always cover fresh green nitrogen rich matter with some good brown carbon rich materials to allow your compost pile to breath.

Materials Not Good for Composting

There are a few Compost No, No’s.  Some of the items you should never add to your compost pile are:

  • Chemically treated wood products that could add toxics to your pile
  • Human wastes
  • Pet wastes
  • Cat litter and feces
  • Diseased plants
  • Coal Ash
  • Colored Paper or colored ink
  • Glossy paper
  • Milk products
  • Bones
  • Meat Scraps
  • Fatty Food Wastes
  • Pernicious Weeds which are plants that can grow from roots or stems in your compost.  Sometimes these plants destroy other plants.  Although there are many pernicious plants, a few examples are:
    1. Morning Glory
    2. Sheep Sorrel
    3. Ivy
    4. Nightshade
    5. Wild Mustard
    6. Tansy Ragwort
    7. Canadian Thistle
  • Inorganic Materials like glass, plastic, metal
  • Herbicides, pesticides, chemicals and poisons

(attract flies and vermin) – local regulations for open compost piles.

Three Main Compost Ingredients

To make your compost pile, you need to provide the best environment for microbial life to flourish in.  The 3 main compost ingredients are:

  1. Air is important to composting microbes. You may need to fluff or turn the pile of organic matter occasionally with a pitchfork to stir up the ingredients and break apart any of the matted material.
  2. Water – Your compost pile should be moist, but not soggy. You should have a cover over your compost pile to prevent it from drying out or getting drenched from heavy rains.
  3. Nutrition – Food.  You should provide a well balanced diet of Brown and Green matter for the microbial life to feast on.

Composting Systems – Buy a system or Build your own.

If you live in the country or in a rural area with no close neighbors, you may decide to build a homemade compost system using hay bales, wooden shipping pallets, or build a wooden or block structure.  There is also the Trench Composting method for larger areas.

Suburban areas will need to check with their local government regulations to see if there are any composting restrictions.  It may be easier to purchase a single composting bin, a 2-3 bin system or a compose tumbler system.

Apartment and condo dwellers, as well as the suburban and rural homeowner can take part in the home compost recycling program by using a vermicomposting system.  What’s that?

Composting with Worms – Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting uses worms to compost. This method is the perfect way to dispose of your kitchen wastes.  It doesn’t need very much room and can be done year-round using your basement, garage and even your kitchen.  You can purchase a nice worm composter for around one hundred dollars.  It is enclosed and doesn’t attract pests and doesn’t smell unless you keep the lid off.  Worms do need to live in a location where the temperature is not too hot and not below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  An inside location is best for most areas of the country.

One important thing to keep in mind is the type of worm that you keep in your composter.  There are thousands of different kinds of worms.  You can’t just go to a fishing store to get your worms, nor should you go outside and dig up some up from your yard.  There are some special Worm Composting Specialist you will need to get.  Be sure to purchase only those worms best suited to composing for your worm compost farm.

Where Should You Put Your Compost Area?

Location, Location, Location – Yes it even applies to your Composting area.  Some ideas to keep in mind are:

  1. Near your garden – for convenience to put your garden waste in.
  2. Near a water source – during drought weather conditions, you may need to add some moisture to your compost pile along with extra “Green” materials
  3. Away from neighbors – some may not appreciate your efforts
  4. Behind the scene (backyard) Garage or Basement
  5. Hide your compost pile behind a small fence or plant some bushes around it.

Speeding Up the Decomposition Process

You can help speed up the decomposition process in your compost pile by doing a few of the following things:

  • Cut up or shred larger pieces of composting materials into smaller ones
  • Aerate your compost pile.  Turn and fluff to circulate air
  • Keep the temperatures around 120-160 degrees Fahrenheit so it will cook faster
  • Feed large meals vs small tidbits at a time
  • Increase the size of your Compost pile – The minimum size you want is 3 X 3 X 3 Feet
  • Cover your compost pile to help retain moisture and prevent over watering from heavy rain.

The Perfect Finished Product

Your finished product takes some time.  It can take from 3 months to a year to achieve the perfect compost.  But it is well worth the wait.

Living on a farm for most of my life, I really didn’t think about making compost.  I just knew that I would find some areas around the farm where hay and manure piles would break down into fine, black, rich dirt that my garden loved!

That’s the Perfect Finish Product.  Black, fine, crumbly dirt with none of the original ingredients visibly present in their original form.

Compost Teas

Some of the compost bins that you can buy come with a spigot near the bottom which will let you drain some of the compost liquid by products which is called Compost Tea.  You can also make this tea by mixing equal parts of compost and water.  Yum!  Your plants will love this treat.  Feed it to your plants, seedlings or transplants to give them a kick start.  It may also give an ailing plant a new lease on life.

Another healthy tea you can make for your plants can be made from a pile of leaves.  Tie up a bunch of leaves in burlap or cheese cloth and sit them down in a bucket of water for several days.  Pull out the leaves and add them to your compost pile.  Feed the nutritious tea to your plants.  They will thank you for it.