Gardening 101

The Basics of Composting

Starting a compost pile is as easy as following a cooking recipe. Just get the right ingredients together, mix well, and let it cook. In a matter of months you’ll have finished “black gold” to mix into the soil of your flower, herb and vegetable gardens.

Compost Ingredients
Compost is decomposed or well-rotted organic material. It can be made from a variety of organic materials, such as vegetable waste, leaves, grass clippings and animal manures. Making compost is a very simple process of alternating layers of brown (high in carbon) ingredients and green (high in nitrogen) ingredients–adding some water between each layer–until you fill the container. Then let it cook until done.

Materials To Use
Brown plant materials, such as leaves, old grass clippings, shredded paper, peat moss, hay and straw are the high carbon ingredients.
Green plant materials, such as fresh grass clippings; vegetable kitchen wastes (including coffee grounds and egg shells); yard waste such as weeds and small twigs; disease-free vegetable plants; and cow, horse or chicken manure. If you are low on green materials, you also can use high-nitrogen organic fertilizers, such as blood meal and cottonseed meal.

Materials To Avoid
Items that should be kept out of compost include meat and bones, dairy products, large amounts of wood chips or sawdust, pet manure, herbicide-treated grass clippings, perennial and seed-bearing weeds, diseased plants and, of course, anything metallic or plastic.

Making a Pile
To get started, find a place for your compost pile that’s convenient to your kitchen or garden and has well-drained soil. In cold areas, locate the pile in a sunny spot and use a black plastic container to help the pile heat up faster. In warm summer areas, locate the pile in the shade so it won’t dry out too quickly.

Although not required, a container keeps your compost pile looking neat and helps prevent animals from scattering food scraps. There are many compost bins and other equipment available from retailers.

Here are five simple steps for making compost:

1. Add a Brown Layer. Lay a 4- to 6-inch-thick layer of brown material on the bottom. Carbon-rich dried grass, peat moss, straw, shredded leaves and other brown plant material make a good base for the pile. Shred the materials before adding them to quicken the decomposition process.

2. Moisten Layer. Dampen the bottom layer so that it’s moist, but not soggy. The moisture will help accelerate the decomposition process by providing the right environment for microbes to break down the material.

3. Add a Green Layer. Make a second, 2- to 4-inch-thick layer of nitrogen-rich green materials, such as fresh grass clippings or vegetable kitchen scraps. If you wish, add a compost enhancer or fertilizer to help jump-start the pile.

4. Make More Layers. Alternate layers of brown and green material until the pile is 3 to 5 feet high (or container is full). Moisten each layer before adding the next.

5. Cover the Bin. Seal the commercial bin or cover the homemade bin with a lid or tarp to prevent animals from getting inside, keep wind from blowing loose material away, and keep rain from making the pile too wet.

The Breakdown
As the material begins to decompose, the center of the pile will heat up. However, the heating doesn’t extend throughout the pile. To ensure that all materials break down, you’ll need to mix the pile. After the center heats up and then cools down (up to several weeks, depending on the time of year and size and composition of the material), turn the pile. Use a garden fork, composting tool or shovel to mix the contents, blending the inside and outside materials. Moisten the pile again after mixing. Repeat turning the pile once or twice. The compost is ready to use when it’s dark and crumbly–usually in a month or two.

Incorporate a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of finished compost into vegetable and annual flower beds two weeks before planting. On poor soil, add a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer.

Source: National Garden Bureau and Willhite Seed

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