Dishing the Dirt - The Art of Composting

What will weed, feed, and water your garden, plus take care of your garbage without complaint? “The perfect teenager” is not the correct answer to this question. The correct answer is…(drum roll, please)…compost. Compost is the semi-stable product that results when organic materials – that is, things that were once or are living – decompose. SO compost takes care of your garbage (your kitchen and yard waste, at least), by providing a convenient way to deal with it; just dump it on the pile. Spread a one-inch layer of compost on top of your garden soil and it will weed by smothering small weed seedlings. And water by soaking up moisture like a sponge and slowing evaporation. Compost also feeds your garden by releasing nutrients as it slowly decomposes. The beauty of making compost is that no matter what you do, if you pile together organic materials, they eventually turn to compost. Depending on how much thought you put into the contents of your pile and how expertly you build it, the process may go more quickly or slowly, but eventually you will get compost. To bin or not to bin There are many advantages to using a compost bin. Basically, a compost bin keeps everything neat, so the pile looks like a compost pile rather than a garbage pile. A bin also keeps neighborhood dogs and wild animals from snooping around in the pile. The activity within a compost pile generates heat, which further speeds up the process, and enclosing the materials in a bin keeps some of that heat from dissipating. \"RapidThe best compost bins not only contain the composting materials, but also keep the materials from drying out, while allowing raw materials to be added and finished compost to be removed conveniently. A cubic-yard capacity is a reasonable minimum size for a compost bin. Many styles of bins are offered for sale, including some (like those made by Rapid Blend Easy Composter, offered by Gardens Alive!) that are barrels with cranks for easily mixing the material. You can custom build a bin out of cinder blocks, stone, bales of hay (the hay can be tossed into the pile once it rots), snow fencing, or wood. If you use build a homemade bin from wood, coat the boards with oil or some other finish to make them last longer and prevent excessive cupping. If a compost bin seems too expensive or labor intensive, then simply keep your compost in a heap. Keep in mind though - compost heaps will need manually turning on a regular basis in order for the pile to “cook”. Heaps can also be unsightly if not kept tidy. And if food waste will be applied on a regular basis, you risk the possibility of attracting pesky critters to your garden area. If possible, try to have two or more compost piles or bins. Then you can have one bin “cooking” while you’re adding materials to a second bin. When that second bin is filled up, the compost should be ready in the first bin; you can then remove and use the finished compost and start refilling the first one. The perfect balance When you add material to your compost bin, it helps to think of your compost pile as a pet. Like other pets, this pet needs food, air, and water. The two major food groups for your pet compost pile are high-carbon foods and high-nitrogen foods. Old plant parts, usually dry and brown, are the high-carbon foods, and young, green, succulent plant parts, as well as kitchen scraps, manures, and nitrogen fertilizers, are the high-nitrogen materials. There is no need to get too exact with the balance of these two foods, because a lot of other things, such as particle size, affect the way they break down; just try to add some of each. Thus, in summer, when grass clippings and vegetable scraps are readily available, remember to balance these high-nitrogen foods with high-carbon foods like wood chips, hay, or sawdust; shredded newspaper (black and white pages only) will also provide good high-carbon bulk. In autumn, when there are a lot of high-carbon fallen leaves available, make it a point to also add a good portion of high-nitrogen foods. Horse, cow, or chicken manure is a good additive if you don’t have a lot of “green” ingredients available as you do your fall cleanup. When you add material to your pile, keep in mind that your compost also needs to breathe. Give it plenty of air and avoid suffocation by balancing dense materials with fluffier materials – grass clippings with hay, for example. Shred materials that tend to mat down, like dead leaves, before you add them. There other way to ensure there’s enough air is by “turning” your compost pile. Take all the ingredients out and use a pitchfork to mix the more decomposed material with the less decomposed material. If you have enough room for two or more compost piles, you can throw the material directly into a new bin as you empty the first one; otherwise, you’ll have to empty and then refill the same bin. Turning your compost is easy if you use an enclosed rotary bin like the ComposTumbler®; just give the handle a couple of turns and you’re done. Even if you don’t completely “turn” the pile, though, you should make sure the middle of the pile has air. An aerator (tool with wings that lie along the shaft as you push it into the pile, then open as you pull it back out) is a special tool designed specifically for this. If your compost pile seems dry, add water. Ideally, you want to keep your pile moist – about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge – rather than dry or soggy. If you’d rather not bother with the water, let rainfall do the job. A few other materials, while not absolutely necessary for making compost, definitely improve the finished product. One material is simply dirt. A sprinkling of soil every few layers helps absorb odors and gives a good feel to the finished product. A bit of ground limestone, available at hardware stores and nurseries, likewise improves the texture of the finished compost, and also adds calcium. There are also a few things not to put into your compost pile. Oils and fats will decompose, but make everything very sluggish, so they’re best disposed of elsewhere. Meats, which are high in nitrogen, will decompose, but they’re also a magnet for scavenging animals, so keep them out of your compost pile. Extremely thick pieces, like corncobs and pine cones, decompose very slowly and will not be ready at the same time as the rest of the pile. Finally, don’t add your kitty’s used litter to the pile, because it can contain pathogens. Foolproof? What can go wrong with a compost pile? Nothing that can’t be fixed with some easy adjustments. As stated previously, any pile of organic materials will eventually turn to compost. Still, a well-made pile will not give off any offensive odors and the process will chug along at a good pace. If you wrinkle your nose when you get near your pile, it needs either more air or more carbon. Lack of air is the result of either too much water or too much dense material, but regular turning should prevent your pile from packing down. Piles fed too much nitrogen will smell of ammonia; the cure here is to add more high-carbon materials. In either case, you also could opt to do nothing; eventually the pile will equilibrate and the material will become compost. If the pile seems sluggish to the point where nothing at all is happening, the problem could be too little or too much water, or too much carbon. Again, you could water the pile, turn it to dry it out a bit, or add some high-nitrogen food to balance out the excess carbon foods – or do nothing and just wait. Ready for use Time and temperature both influence how long it will take between putting raw materials into your bin and being able to shovel out finished compost. Finished compost no longer generates heat and will be dark brown and crumbly with few, if any, of the original ingredients still recognizable. Pick up a handful of the material and smell it. Finished compost has the pleasant aroma of forest soil.