What's The Point?Many people wonder what's the big deal with composting. Why not just use fertilizer, and be done with it? The difference between using a chemical fertilizer and using compost is similar to the difference between eating a Big Mac and eating a fresh salad. Which one is a better meal for your body? Of course, it's the fresh salad. The same thing goes for your garden. Using compost gives your garden plants the nutrients and "vitamins" it needs to thrive. Chemical fertilizers may help growth initially, but it will not sustain the good, robust health that compost will provide. Not only does compost contain all of the major plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) in forms readily available to plants, but it also contains a wealth of minor and trace elements as well as billions (yes, literally billions) of bacteria, yeast, fungi, and other soil creatures that will continue to break down organic and inorganic matter in the compost and in your soil, providing a long-term, steady feeding of nutrients to plants. Compost also helps to build up your soil. It helps clay soil drain better, helps to bind loose, sandy soil, and improves overall moisture retention. The best thing you could ever add to your garden is compost.
How Long Does It Take To Make Compost?Many gardeners don't compost simply because they perceive it to be more difficult or complicated than it really is. In truth, composting - rotting really - is a natural process that will occur even without any effort on a gardener's part. If you just put all your garden waste, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and autumn leaves into a giant pile, you'd have good, usable compost deep within the pile in a year and a half or so. If using table scraps, do not use any meats. The meats will rot also, but does not break down like vegetation. Also the rotting meat can attract scavengers like possums or rats, and I don't think you want those near your garden or home. My rule is to play it safe and just stick to vegetation items. Actively engaging in the composting process just speeds the whole process up greatly. Researchers have found that it's possible to make finished compost (that is, compost that is so completely broken down that none of its component materials are distinguishable) in as little as ten days. Practically speaking, most home gardeners can make a good batch of compost every 3-4 weeks; over a growing season, that's a lot of free fertilizer of unparalleled quality.
Getting StartedSo, how do you make compost? There are four key words to remember: green, brown, air, water. What this means is that to make compost, all you have to do is bring together moist, fresh, predominantly green ingredients (grass clippings, weeds, kitchen scraps, and the like) and predominantly brown ingredients (dead leaves, straw, hay, wood shavings or chips, etc.), ensure that the mix remains damp, and turn it all every few days to reintroduce oxygen to the pile. That's it. In less than a month, you'll have rich, crumbly, brown compost that you can add to your garden soil, use in containers, or mulch with. It can be made anywhere, in virtually any kind of container, or in no container at all - just a big pile. A bin or tumbler will keep the process neat and manageable, however, and will make it easier to add air to the mixture. To start your compost pile, reduce the size of the ingredients you're using in the pile by chopping them with a machete, a sharp garden spade, or other tool. Autumn leaves can be shredded quite well by repeatedly mowing over them. Then add all the ingredients together, layering them in 3-4-inch-thick layers if you're using a bin, or just tossing them altogether if you're using a tumbler of some sort. Strive for somewhere between a 5:1 and an 8:1 ratio, by volume, of brown materials (fuel for the organisms that will decompose the pile) to green, but don't get too fussy about it. if the proportion is off, it's easy enough to recognize and to remedy.
Balancing It OutA pile that doesn't heat up within 24 hours needs more green material. A compost thermometer is very handy for determining the temperature near the center of the pile, which should rise to approximately 150-160°F. Often, however, you can see a pile steaming and can feel its heat even from the outside of the tumbler or over the top of the bin. A pile that develops an ammonia-like smell needs more brown materials; just work some more into the pile, and the aroma should go away.
Inducing DecompositionThe air and water requirements of a composting operation are similarly low-key. The mixture of materials should remain about as moist as a damp sponge. Remember, damp not soaking wet. The more often you turn a pile, the quicker you'll have compost, because most of the composting process is carried out by aerobic (oxygen-using) bacteria. If you decide to build your pile in a traditional square bin, you'll want to have an extra bin next to it, so that you can move the pile from one bin into another. If you use a tumbler of some type, turning is easier yet: All you have to do is spin or roll the container to re-oxygenate the pile.
Tips and TroubleshootingNot much can go wrong with a compost pile other than the two conditions mentioned above - a pile that doesn't heat up and one that develops an ammonia-like smell. Altering the ratio of ingredients one way or the other will generally right things. You can prevent any problems with critters visiting your pile by keeping animal and dairy products out of your kitchen compost container. Vegetable and fruit scraps are excellent "green" additions.
How To Use Your First Batch of CompostOnce you've cooked your first batch of compost, what do you do with it? As mentioned above, it's excellent as an addition to garden soil, container mixes, or used as a mulch. Depending on the ingredients you used, there may be coarse pieces still in the compost. The best way to deal with these is to screen the finished compost through a piece of hardware cloth stapled to a frame (or through a "riddle," a tool designed for just such a purpose).
Do It All AgainAnything that doesn't sift through the screen can be returned to your pile or bin for further breakdown. And be sure to save a bit of finished compost to start the next batch: The rich microbial life within that compost will get things off to an even faster start next time around. I will admit that I abandoned composting a few years ago because I did not like the unsightly pile of trash in my yard. After visiting a friend's garden near the end of the season last year, I quickly changed my mind about composting. He had the most beautiful garden plants I had seen. When I asked him what he used, he simply answered, "Just compost." I knew then that I needed to re-institute my own composting. So, very soon, I will begin adding items to my old composting pile, to get the decomposition commencing. I have also looked into possibly purchasing a compost bin. Most that I have seen are a bit more than I want to pay for one. I have found a bin at Gardener's Supply on sale for $69.99. I may look into getting it so I don't have the big pile of stuff in the yard. For the frugal-minded gardener, a pile will work fine, or if you have some scrap lumber laying around, you can build your own compost bin.
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