Composting 101

composting-101We’d heard a lot about composting before we tried it. We kept putting it off – it sounded smelly; it sounded time consuming; we could do just as well with commercial fertilizer. All of those assumptions were wrong, of course.

Composting isn’t difficult, and when done right, it doesn’t create a smelly mess. And if you think like we did, that commercial fertilizers and soil treatments are just fine, you’ll be amazed by the difference a little compost makes in your garden. It took us several years to get over those assumptions and discover just how incredible (and simple) composting is.

Something else we discovered is that by going with natural fertilizers for our food, we were able to reduce the amount of environmental toxins we were introducing into our land.  Composting is a real winner!

What Is Composting?

Really, composting is nothing more than letting nature do what she does best. She’s the master of breaking things down to create something else. While you can use either a simple or complex system for your composting, it’s the same process in all of them.

Waste organic material is broken down by microbes and bacteria over time. As it breaks down, it turns into rich, black soil exceptionally high in nutrients that your garden will love. Whether you’re growing your own fruits and vegetables or just want to raise the most beautiful flowers on the block, composting helps.

What Type of Equipment Do I Need?

In the simplest setup, you don’t need any equipment at all, other than a shovel or other tool to turn over the compost pile every few days. While you’ll see rotary composters and other containers on the market, they’re not necessary, strictly speaking. Of course, you’ll want to keep your compost pile contained, so a three-sided container or a basic box-shaped structure can be beneficial (it doesn’t need to be elaborate – building it from scrap lumber is perfectly acceptable).

In these types of systems (as opposed to rotary styles), your compost remains in contact with the ground, which is a good thing. It ensures that your compost remains moist, and it helps to introduce microbes to the mix.

It also lets earthworms into your compost, which is something that you want. In a closed system that’s not in contact with the ground, you’ll need to introduce worms manually, and you might also need a starter kit of bacteria and microbes to jump-start the composting process.compost-garden

How Does It Work?

Composting is dead simple. You just need the right mix of green, brown and air. To clarify, green materials are fresh and wet – grass clippings and kitchen scraps are perfect examples. Brown materials are dead – leaves, twigs, shredded paper bags, shredded paper towels and the like. Add these two material types together in layers (6 inches of brown, 3 inches of green, 6 inches of brown, 3 inches of green, with the occasional addition of dirt from your yard), a light spray of water between each layer and then turn the pile every few days to let oxygen into the mix.

Whatever you’re adding – brown or green – smaller is better.  The smaller the pieces, the more quickly it will break down into rich, nutritious compost.

Oxygen is necessary to keep the bacteria working. Without a good supply of fresh oxygen, things get messy and you’ll end up with a wet, smelly pile. While that will eventually turn into usable compost, it takes longer and the smell can be cloying. In a composting system that’s working normally, there’s virtually no smell at all, and the process moves faster.

Once the composting process begins, the pile will heat up. You’ll hear some gardeners refer to composting as “cooking”, and this is why. Heat is necessary, and a sign that your compost is doing what you want.

If things begin to cool off, you might need to adjust your brown-to-green mix (you should have a 70/30 mix), add more water (it needs to stay moist – not soaked – at all times) or need to add more oxygen by turning the pile.

What Can I Do with Compost?

The most common use for compost is to amend soil in the garden or in your flowerbeds. It can be used to give fruit trees extra nutrients as well. In fact, you can use it anywhere that you would have used conventional fertilizers or soil treatments to boost plant health.

Good and Bad Materials

Not all materials can be composted. While anything organic in origin will eventually break down, it’s best to stick to plant-based materials. Leaves, dead or dying plants from your garden, kitchen leavings, paper grocery bags, grass clippings and the like can all go in.

Don’t add meat products, plastics, cloth, dryer lint, or fat-coated products (buttered vegetables and the like). Meat and cooked veggies can attract mice, rats and other scavengers to your pile.

Composting results in rich, life-giving nutrients for your garden, and it’s dead simple to do at home.




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