Monday, February 17, 2014

Compost--it's Not Complicated!

Composting isn’t complicated. There are shelves of books, articles galore in every garden magazine out there, and a million or so Web sites to tell you how. But taking the subject down to its basic core, it’s just a matter of piling up organic stuff and letting it rot. Mother Nature does it all the time, breaking down natural debris, feeding the soil as it decays.
By composting in your own yard, you are taking advantage of the free stuff Nature gives you to build your soil so your plants can grow to their full potential, plus keeping a lot of stuff out of the landfills.
A compost pile isn’t the most attractive thing to have in a garden so choose a level area that is out of the way but accessible to a wheelbarrow and a spading fork, with a little space to work it. Behind a garage or garden shed would be a good location. Ideally, it should be located away from trees as tree roots tend to grow up into that nice, nutrient-rich compost. You won’t want to have to dig them out when it’s time to put your finished compost on the garden, but if you have no choice, a double layer of landscape fabric or even old carpet laid nap side down on the ground underneath will help slow down invading roots.

Spring is a good time to start, when you are cleaning up flower beds, raking leaves left from fall, and mowing lawns.

You need at least two piles, or bins. Start by filling one with a thick layer of leaves, a layer of green stuff, and a couple shovels of topsoil or composted manure as an activator to get the decomposition process kick-started (or buy a bag of compost starter from your local garden center); then layers of grass, organic waste from your kitchen, more leaves, etc. When the bin is full, start flipping it over into the second bin with a spading fork, beginning with a layer of leaves; adding more organic waste and garden debris and covering that up from the first bin, and so on. Repeat until that one is full, then reverse the process. After you flip the contents of the two bins thoroughly three or four times, you should have some pretty good compost.

Bins can be built of a variety of materials. We have three, two 4' x 4' wire ones, and a double one made with four 4' x 8’ hog panels, but we have an acre of trees that shed leaves and a lot of garden debris. The average gardener might not need one that big. You don’t really even need a bin, a pile will do; but a bin keeps things contained and neater. Two three-sided (open on the front) bins can be constructed with fence posts and 2”x 4” fence wire, 3’ high; pallets on edge in the same configuration, snow fencing, picket fence; or if you are handy with tools, you can get as fancy as you like with boards and chicken wire. Two 3’x 3’ bins side by side is a good size to start with.

One of the easiest and most efficient ways is to stack two layers of straw bales on edge in three-sided bin form, with the front open for easy access. When the bales start to rot after a season, simply break them up, put them in the compost, and build a new set of bins with fresh bales. An interesting side to the straw bale bins is that you can plant in the top bales, as in straw bale gardening; grow some cucumbers, tomatoes or pumpkins in there. The ideal spot for this type of compost bin would be in the middle of your vegetable garden.
So what can you put in your compost? Most anything organic. For successful composting you need four things: carbon, nitrogen, moisture, and air. Brown stuff like fallen leaves, corn stalks, newspaper, shredded paper, paper towels and napkins is carbon. Green stuff like lawn clippings, garden debris, any kind of vegetable waste from the kitchen is nitrogen; also hair, human or animal, eggshells, chicken or rabbit manure, coffee grounds. About one part nitrogen to two parts carbon is a good ratio. Wood ashes are also good, providing potash, but don’t overdo it. Too much of that is not a good thing. Rain is usually enough moisture; if not, soak it down once in a while but don’t keep it wet. Air is mixed in when you turn it.

We keep a covered pail in the kitchen for vegetable scraps and anything compostable, emptying it into the pile once a day in the summer, every two or three days in the winter. Leftover coffee, juices, tea, water drained from cooking all go in there making a soupy mix. Top it off with plenty of water, which makes it easier to dump and also adds moisture to the compost. Always cover kitchen scraps with a shovelful or two from the other bin, plus dry grass, leaves, or garden debris.
What not to put in there: anything plastic or metal. It’s irritating to have to pick junk out of your finished compost. No meat scraps and bones; they encourage animal scavengers. No used kitty litter, grass or weeds that have been treated with weed killers, or used diapers—they won’t break down. No seedy weeds; weed seeds will live through the composting process and be spread around when the compost is used. No diseased garden debris, same reason. Tree branches take too long to break down.

A working compost pile should feel warm, almost hot inside, even in winter. It may even steam. You are going to see pill bugs, earthworms and other insects in there, as well as spiders and beetles looking for a good meal. Don’t freak out, that’s a good thing. They are the workers, breaking down raw materials and turning them into useable compost.
Depending on how often the compost is turned, it could be ready in 6 or 8 weeks; longer over the winter. It’s finished when it looks mostly like soil.  Sift it using a plant flat or plastic crate over a wheelbarrow, tossing uncomposted stuff back into the bottom of the bin. Save a couple of shovels full to restart the next batch.

Here’s more info from the U. of Illinois Extension, including problem solving: and plenty on building bins and composting from the U. of Missouri Extension:

Do your garden a favor and give composting a try.

"Unless you are in a race or something, there are only two “rules” for successful composting: Stop throwing all that stuff away, and pile it up somewhere.”
                                       ~Felder Rushing

 "Speaking of Gardens " column, published in The Joplin Globe, February 16, 2014

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