Everybody knows that compost - referred to by gardeners as "black gold" is essential for raising a healthy, organic garden. And while it is easy to make compost at home - there is some mystery in the science going on in the compost pile, and even some confusion about how to properly compost.
To clear the confusion, here's what makes compost, more than a pile of dirt...
The Science of Composting...
- When you make compost, you're really not doing anything nature wouldn't do otherwise. You're simply accelerating the natural process of decay. Composting creates an ideal environment for certain microorganisms (like oxygen-loving aerobic bacteria and even fungi) and some macroorganisms (earthworms, etc) while simultaneously rendering that environment inhospitable to other microorganisms (oxygen-hating anaerobic bacteria) and a few unwanted organisms (such as my arch-nemisis, the creature of whom we do not speak, otherwise known as "the r--"). When you create optimum conditions for this decay, the end result is a dark humus that slowly adds nutrients to your soil, improves soil structure for better root growth, and balances ph.
- it reduces the need for other fertilizers, reduces landfill waste, and may even slow global warming. It's hard to imagine a watermelon rind really doing much environmental damage. But in a landfill, the process of decay is not accelerated as it would be in a compost pile. So while the rind is taking months (years in a colder climate) to break down....more and more watermelons, shoeboxes, magazines, carrot butts, etc. are being piled on as the pile gets larger and larger. Anaerobic bacteria thrive in these conditions, releasing smelly by-product gases like methane into the environment.
- First, I should take a few sentences to address some reasons why you may be reluctant to start a compost heap. One common concern is that the compost heap will be ugly... ...and boy is that true! There is no way to make a compost heap pretty. Just look at the picture on this blog. Ug-ly! And you should've seen it before we went to "hot composting". (Read on!) But, look at this way - you're taking out less trash and saving $ by not buying the store-bought stuff. Just put it somewhere other than next to your patio and move on. It's worth it. The second concern is that compost will attract varmints. I hate varmints as much as the next person - probably more than the next person, but if you compost correctly, I promise this will not be a concern.
- Now that you're convinced, you've got a decision to make. Like tea, do you prefer cold compost or hot compost? Cold compost is pretty much free. You just build a pile of organic matter and stir it. You might put it in an open, 3 walled box made of pallets or cinder block. It may take over a year to get your compost, but you won't spend a dime. The other option is to "hot" compost. In this method, you store you compost in a container designed to optimize heat and oxygen distribution. These containers vary wildly in price, but you can get one for a reasonable rate. Like this one, on Amazon.com:
- Once you've decided how to contain your compost, the procedure is pretty much the same. Throughout your daily life, you'll be collecting organic matter. In the kitchen, add tea bags, coffee grounds, veggie scraps, egg shells, etc. to your kitchen compost container. A counter top compost pail, is ceramic, looks cute, and has a charcoal filter to keep in any odors. In the yard, add grass clippings, stems, pine needles, and fall leaves. Never add meat, bones, sauces, cheeses, human wastes, or pet wastes.
- As you add materials, layer the compost in alternating layers of "wet" materials like damp grass clippings and "dry" materials, like shredded newspaper. The moisture content should be comparable to a wrung-out sponge. Likewise, adding alternating layers of carbon-rich brown matter (like sawdust) and nitrogen-rich green matter (like veggie scraps) will make for a proper nutrient balance for our good aerobic bacteria. Remember, aerobic bacteria crave oxygen so you'll have to stir or "turn" your compost every month or so. Your compost pile should be about 4 X 4 in size for ideal distribution of oxygen and ideal temperature levels...eventually, your compost should be warm to the touch.
- So, you're adding a mixture of dry and wet organic materials, stirring or turning once a month, and maintaining a 4X4 size...fortunately, most any question you have will likewise, have a simple solution...
- My compost is too dry and not "cooking". You can add more wet materials, or even "water" your compost with a waterhose. Just don't over do it!
- My compost is too wet. It's not cooking. Add dry materials.
- My compost smells. It's either too wet or someone is chucking meat, etc into your pile and the stuff is just rotting. Your compost isn't ruined, but add dry material, and keep the contraband out before you get varmints.
- Can I put "unfinished" compost in my garden and let break down there? I understand the temptation, but you probably shouldn't. The microorganisms breaking down that half-decayed carrot will actually take nitrogen from your garden soil. Once the carrot breaks down, it'll give the nitrogen back, but you really want a steady release.
- Can I put raw cow/horse manure in my garden? No. In this case, the high nitrogen content of the manure will actually "burn" the roots of your plant. Age the manure first.
- How do I really get my compost cookin? If you're doing everything listed, and still want faster compost, buy a turnable composter, add, activator, add worms, and tear your organic matter into strips, etc. before adding to your pile.