Thursday, January 28, 2010

Compost Made Easy

When I teach home gardening classes there are always people who complain they cannot make compost. I always ask, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it rot?”
“Of course,” they answer.

So why do people have problems with composting? They read too many books and articles by people who try to make a simple natural process complex.

 First off let’s define terms:
  1. Compost is a finished, rotted organic matter
  2. Composting is the process of organic decomposition speeded by humans.
  3. Carbon rich matter ( CRM) is dry plant materials
  4. Nitrogen rich matter NRM) is green plant materials and manure from plant eating animals
  5. Hot compost reaches tempuratures of 140F and higher
  6. Cold compost does not get very hot 100F is maximum
  7. Vermiculture the science of using worms to make worm castings to enrich the soil.
To make compost all you need to do is mix Nitrogen rich matter with Carbon rich matter and add some water. Simple. Yes?

 Well, not really. Too much NRM and the compost can stink. Too little and the process moves slowly. Just the same the other way ‘round; too much CRM slows down; too little CRM and you get bad odors. Too much water and the pile stagnates. Too little water and it just sits dry. Our Fire Chief issues warnings every summer to keep the compost pile watered. It cuts down on backyard fires. (Spontaneous combustion from the heat generated by the NRM in contact with the CRM.)

 So how on earth do you know how much to use? Don’t you have to layer, then turn, then turn, then turn? When do I know if my compost is too wet or dry? Isn’t a composter with a lid the best? I heard you should spread the compost materials over the entire garden in fall and have compost ready in the spring? Oh, how about after spreading the compost covering it with black plastic to sterilize all the seeds? But, don’t I have to have ‘hot’ compost for the flower bed, ‘cold’ compost for the vegetable garden, and feed worms in a tub with my kitchen scraps? Don’t I have to buy a compost ‘starter’ for my compost to work? How about buying this herb combination that is said to correct all composting problems?

 I learned about composting from Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine in the early ‘70’s. I read the ones at Grandpa Bill’s and Grandma Jo’s house. The articles were written by the Rodale family members, a handful of horticulturists and a great number of subscribers learning by trial and error.

 It was reading the magazines that led me to building my first compost pile out on Uncle Johnny's dairy farm in 1971. We were helping out on the farm since Grandpa Bill had a heart attack and Cousin Jimmy broke his leg. Being two people down, help was needed to get some chores done.
The edges of the feed room were filled with moldering hay and feed. I took it upon myself to wheel out the unusable feed to the garden area. I would add buckets of manure from cleaning the 'manure trough' in the milking area. Grandpa Bill was a bit irritated about my endeavors. Seems piles of old hay and straw had been dumped in the garden before and those were very difficult to till in, come planting time.
 I explained that OGaFM said the pile should be great organic fertilizer in by planting time in four months. The difference from before was that this pile had manure which would aid in breaking down the hay. Grandpa Bill harrumphed.
One day in August, Grandma Jo showed Scott and me the ‘bump’ in the garden. Where I had built my compost pile the plants were larger and greener than the rest of the garden. I saw that composting really does work! And it was so easy.

That first compost pile was about 3 parts CRM and 1 part NRM. It didn’t all break down, since the hay and straw were full size. But the composting action had softened up the stems so when Grandpa Bill went over with the tractor he had no problem plowing under the remains of the compost pile.

 We moved into what I dubbed ‘The Volkswagen Garage.’ We later found out the building was part of the old Lewis family homestead. It was built by Grandpa Jeff as part of his Eagle Scout Award. He built it as a wood shed 15 ft wide and 25 ft deep. Later, when his grandmother wanted to give the farm house to Jeff’s dad, they remodeled it into a very small one bedroom house for her. We lived there about 18 months; right across the street from Uncle Bill’s and Aunt Ellen’s first landlady. I promise I won’t tell tales out of school!
Anyway, there was limited planting area around the house. And no room for a compost pile. Every day I put the kitchen compostables (parings, pits, cores, coffee grounds, tea bags) in a paper bag and buried it in the flower beds. I noticed on my second round of composting this way, my earliest bags were pretty much gone in about six months. An upside from this method, we had potatoes in the flower beds. No problem, we enjoyed the potato plants and robbed fresh potatoes that summer.

 Have I made my point? Composting is easy. Everything rots. My favorite book on composting is, Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting (Third Edition) (Storey's Down-to-Earth Guides)  by Stu Campbell. He has a down to earth view on how easy it is to make this garden staple. He is funny and informative. The book is not too long; but carries the information you need to compost.

Compost rots because of the critters that live in the soil. Worms, ants, beetles and other insects. Microbes (bacteria, microscopic insects, fungi) work to make the organic matter small enough to be useful to plant roots. The conditions have to be just right for the compost to rot. Like I said earlier, not too much of any one thing. If your pile is suffering from too much Nitrogen, add some Carbon in the form of dead leaves or straw. Too much Carbon, morning urine can really jump start the decomposition. (Yes, you heard me right. An older couple were worried about having too many leaves in their compost. I laughingly made the suggestion. Next time we spoke, the husband confessed to have tried it. It worked! Just make sure you are screened from the neighbor's view. I take no responsibility for your actions.)

I think layering came about as a way to ensure your compost pile had the right compliment of ingredients. If you want to layer, fine. I just chuck plant material into the compost pile. When it gets about two feet high, I turn it over and mix it up. Okay that is what I did before I became unable to work in the garden. Now I just throw things into a pile and let it rot. It takes six months to a year to become usable compost.

‘Hot’ ‘Cold’ Vermiculture
For ‘Hot’ compost you must shred or chop all of you components very small, and water until damp. Then put in a pile that gets turned at least once a week. The pile will heat up enough to kill most seeds and diseases. The heat is the action of the microbes eating away. I used to do this. It makes great compost but is a lot of physical work.
Cold compost doesn’t heat up very much. You can either shred/chop or not. (By making the material small you speed up the process, otherwise it may take a year to compost completely.) Everything still rots, but there might be living seeds that come with the finished compost. I had scads of seedling tomatoes in my flower beds from using cold compost. I just pulled them up and composted them.
Vermiculture in a tub is your choice. I have found worms in my compost. LOTS of worms. I compost both my garden and kitchen waste together. Worms love coffee grounds! It is not necessary to have a worm tub if you compost in your garden.

You don’t really need compost starters and herbal activators. When you are building you compost pile, add a shovel full of regular garden soil every foot or so. That should contain the composting critters to get you started. Or use some old compost.  Just add enough water to dampen the pile as you build it.  No need to flood anything.

If you have a problem with wet compost, turn it over leaving it fluffy to dry out. Or spread it out in the sun for a day or two. I have used umbrellas to shelter my compost bins. They keep out excess moisture.
If your compost is too dry, turn it into a new pile adding water to each level. If you try to just water from the top; think how a thatched roof works. I have used umbrellas to contain moisture in the pile.

When I used to turn the compost, I found a white, ashy material all over the grass clippings. This is a fungus that is breaking down the material. It’s good.
I’ve never found a rat or mouse or flies or other vermin in my working compost. That’s because I never, ever add fats, grease, bones, or meat to my compost.  Nor do I use disease carrying human, cat or dog feces.  EVER!
I have found worm masses the size of a basket ball. I was so happy; worms are a soil’s best friend. Oh, there was the baby corn snake curled up in the warmest part of a working compost pile once. I just moved it over with the rest of the material.

How does compost help your garden?
  • It makes clay soils less ‘heavy.’ Clays can be so dense water will not penetrate them. Plant roots cannot find room to grow. Using compost helps to loosen up the soil.  The organic matter in compost helps to open up the pores of the soil; giving roots a place to grow. You must continue to add organic matter to clay as it decays or eventually the soil will compact again.
  • It helps sandy soils to retain more water. The organic matter fills in the pores of sandy soil making it more absorbent. Water does not drain off so fast; giving plants a steady source of water.
  • As it decomposes even more, compost becomes fertilizer for the garden. Plants take up nutrients through their roots. Compost supplies those nutrients needed for plant growth.

And the best part of composting: You are recycling back into Mother Earth.

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