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By Richard Murray
Composting is not only one of the best things you can do for your garden, it is also one of the best things you can do for our environment. Knowing how to create and use compost is in our interest due to the tremendous problem of waste disposal. Landfills are becoming more and more difficult to find, so some municipalities are dealing with waste by refusing to pick up leaves and grass clippings.. About one-third of the space in our landfills is taken up with organic wastes from our yards and kitchens.
The end product from your compost bin will be a wonderful pile of black, crumbly humus which makes an ideal soil conditioner. Compost added regularly to your soil will benefit the soil by improving it’s texture such as loosening up clay soils and creating moisture holding capacity in sandy soils.
Composting, is the controlled decomposition of biodegradable organic matter. Instead of allowing nature to take its slow course, a compost pile or bin provides the optimal environment in which decomposition can thrive. To encourage the best results, the compost pile needs the correct mix of the following ingredients:
With enough time, all biodegradable materials will eventually decompose, although some materials are not appropriate for backyard composting. Most backyard systems will not reach high enough temperatures to kill pathogens and vermin, so certain items such as meat scraps, dairy products and pet droppings are discouraged from use. A well balanced compost pile will not have an offensive smell
High carbon materials (browns), which convert to heat include:
* Dry straw and hay
* Autumn leaves
High nitrogen materials (greens) which will allow the compost bacteria to thrive include:
* Green plant material such as garden residue, fresh hay, grass clippings, and weeds
* Animal manure; such as horse, cow, chicken, or guano
* Fruit and vegetable waste
* Seaweed (rinse well to remove salt)
* Coffee grounds and filters
A few leaf species such as live oak, southern magnolia and holly trees are too tough and leathery for easy composting, also avoid all parts of the black walnut tree as they contain a plant poison that survives composting. It is also common sense to avoid using poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac in your compost.
The proportions of these materials will make a difference in the rate of decomposition. The best ratio is about 25 or 30 parts of browns to one part of greens. Too much carbon slows the composting process and too much nitrogen will cause odors.
As a convenience, keep a small compost pail in the kitchen to bring your scraps to the pile every few days. Keep a lid on the container to discourage insects and odors.
A well chosen site will speed up the composting process. Find a level, well drained sunny area preferably over dirt or grass. If you plan to be using kitchen scraps, keep it close to the back door and also close to the garden so that it will be used on a regular basis and not forgotten.
Home composting uses a variety of techniques, running from passive composting (throw everything into a pile in the corner and leave it alone) to active, which consists of monitoring temperature, turning the pile on a regular basis and adjusting the materials on a regular schedule. A well managed system may produce a finished product in as little as three to four weeks, but this involves some participation, ranging from turning the pile on a regular basis to a major commitment of time and energy.
Is very helpful to have a compost bin enclosed in a structure either homemade or purchased. The bin should measure at least about 3 ft. by 3 ft. and should have air spaces so air circulation can occur. Materials such as used freight pallets, chicken wire, builders’ hardware cloth or concrete blocks can all be utilized to create a three sided structure. You may find it desirable to have two bins, one for fresh material while the composting process is happening in the other bin. Leave one side open for access or create a gate that can be opened for access. A tarpaulin may be used to cover the top of the bin in rainy weather to prevent the compost from getting too wet.
Start your compost pile with a 3 in. layer of course plant material such as small twigs or straw. Next place your first layer of plant and kitchen refuse. The next layer should be a nitrogen rich material such as fresh manure if it is available, fresh grass clippings, fresh hay, or succulent green weeds. If the waste materials are fairly free of soil, a small amount of soil, a compost starter, a layer of old compost or good gardening soil added to each layer will introduce necessary microorganisms.
Water the pile just enough to keep the contents moist but not soaking wet. In a week or two, the pile should heat up to approximately to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature many of the weed seeds and harmful organisms will be killed. Approximately a month after this point the pile should be forked over to thoroughly mix the materials in the pile. Repeat this step in another five to six weeks. If the pile is decreasing in size after this time, you will know that it is composting properly.
Another system of composting is called sheet composting. A layer of organic material, about 3 to 4 in thick is spread over your garden, and then covered with a 2 in. layer of soil. The organic material is allowed to decay at least three months prior to cultivating. This can be done over the winter when your garden is fallow and will provide you with a good start for your spring crops.
A different concept of composting that is rapidly gaining in popularity is worm farming, or vermiculture. Small scale vermin-composting is well-suited to turn kitchen waste into high-quality soil, where space is limited. There are suppliers of worm-farming equipment on the internet to help you get started.
About the Author: Dick Murray is a retired urbanite who has kept his passion for gardening alive with the creation of an informational web site dedicated to vegetable gardening basics. More and more families are beginning to grow their own fruits and vegetables due to their increased concern regarding the quality, price and safety of our food supply.
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