The Dirt On Composting

Last year was my first as a gardener. Yup, I decided I was going to harvest groceries from my own backyard, read everything I could find about square-foot gardening, and set to work on my modest 15x15 foot garden.

Dare I say it? I had a bumper crop, baby! Oodles and oodles of garden-fresh, gorgeous produce. And, au naturale, thankyouverymuch. No chemical pesticides and fertilizers here. Organic as organic can be.

The secret's in the soil.

Special ingredient? Compost.

In the natural world, composting is what happens as leaves pile up on the forest floor and begin to decay. Eventually, the rotting leaves are returned to the soil, where living roots finish the recycling process by reclaiming the nutrients from the decomposed leaves. See, nature's been composting for eons!

Gardener's Gold

If you're a gardener, composting is a cheap and easy way to create your own fantastic fertilizer. Instead of throwing out your food scraps, you can put them to good use.

It's crazy, but about 1/3 of the waste sitting in a landfill is composed of organic matter that could easily have been composted. On average, one household could save 700 pounds of waste material a year just by composting. That's a lot of garbage, folks.

Why not turn your garbage into gold? The end product of compost is humus, a rich natural fertilizer. When mixed with soil, it contributes to erosion control and healthy root development, improves and stabilizes soil pH, and increases the nutrient content in the soil.

What materials can be composted?
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves, twigs, bark
  • Food waste, vegetable & fruit scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Sunday comics
  • Burned toast
  • Potato peelings
I think you see where this list is going. It's endless, really. I keep a container in my kitchen that gets filled throughout the day with:
  • Apple cores
  • Banana peels
  • Date pits
  • Grapefruit rinds
  • Tea bags
  • Watermelon rinds
  • Corncobs
  • Olive pits
  • Onion skins
  • Produce trimmings
  • Seaweed
  • Grocery receipts
  • Old flower arrangements
  • Dog fur
  • Kleenex
  • Fingernail clippings
When the container's full, I'll take it out back and add it to the compost bin along with shredded newspapers, horse hair...heck, I'll even throw in the dust bunnies that I chased out from under the bed.

What materials cannot be composted?
  • Food waste like meat, fish, bones, fat
  • Cooking oil
  • Dairy products
  • Diseased plants or weeds
  • Heavily coated paper (magazines, catalogs, etc.)
  • Kitty litter and pet feces
Actually, I should probably change that from "cannot" to "should not" because I'm sure there are people who throw all that (and more!) into their compost bins. But, unless you want varmints coming into your yard or a fungus among us, I'd recommend you refrain from composting these items.


Building a compost pile

While some people choose to go binless, simply building a compost pile on the ground, you can make a homemade compost bin from a trash can, cinder blocks, wire mesh, or wooden pallets.

I'd avoid using treated lumber like CCA – also known as pressure-treated wood – as it contains arsenic. Don't want that leaching into your compost!

Not a do-it-yourselfer? You can always purchase a manufactured bin.

Tips for composting
  • Decrease the size of the materials being composted
  • Provide oxygen to the compost by periodically turning the pile
  • Make sure the pile is moist, but not too wet
  • For faster composting, keep your pile or compost bin in direct sun
  • Make sure the pile contains more brown material (dried leaves, wood chips) than green material (grass clippings, kitchen waste)
Got compost?

When finished it should look, feel and smell like rich, dark soil. You should not be able to recognize any of the items you put in there.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up my garden from her looooooong winter's nap. I spread a good four-inch layer of finished compost on the plot and tilled it into the top 12 inches of soil. Generally, you want to add the finished compost to your garden about 2-4 weeks before you're ready to plant, giving the compost time to integrate and stabilize within the soil.

Oh, she is looking so very happy now and barring a blizzard (hey, it's been known to happen here, trust me), I'll be putting in my cool weather crops – lettuce, kale, spinach, peas, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts – this weekend.

When planting a flower or vegetable transplant, deposit a handful of compost into each hole. Compost will provide transplants with an extra boost that lasts throughout the growing season. Think of it as a gourmet meal for your plants!

The other thing I like to do is soak finished compost in water to "brew" a compost tea. This nutrient-rich liquid is fabulous for watering plants in your backyard garden. Ever wonder what to do with all that pulp from the freshly extracted juice you make?  Throw it in the blender with some water, and voilĂ , a delicious "smoothie" for your houseplants. They'll drink it up and thrive!
For more information and how-to articles, a terrific resource is HowToCompost.org.

So, tell me, are you planting a garden this year? Got compost?


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