One of the pillars of organic gardening is the steady application of compost to any area that is growing something of value. Compost is, of course, readily available for purchase from the garden center, but compost can be easily made at home with the most minimal tools. And the benefits to soil and plants of composting well justify the modest effort of making it.
Compost is created by combining organic wastes from home and yard in proper ratios and allowing microorganisms, water, and heat to decompose the materials into dark brown earthy humus. This humus can then be used as a soil amendment or medium to grow outdoor plants. All soils can be improved with the addition of humus. Specifically, most urban and suburban soils are of high clay content and compacted. This makes growing plants a challenge. The addition of compost promotes the creation of high quality soils that grow better plants and improve the environment.
Benefits of Composting
–Reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizers.
–Enriches existing soils and regenerates poor soils by encouraging the production of beneficial micro-organisms. These micro-organisms in turn, break down the organic matter to create humus.
–Helps soil retain moisture and breath. Soils with high organic matter hold moisture better and release it over a longer period of time. They create a more friable soil that roots love to grow in.
–Suppress plant diseases and pests. The beneficial micro-organisms you introduce into the soil naturally suppress harmful diseases and pests.
– Greatly increase yield of crops. It’s easy: Better soil-Better crops.
–Holds, degrades, or eliminates many chemicals and hazardous materials in the soil. This is particularly important in the city where fallout of chemicals from the air can contribute to hazardous material in the soil.
–Reduces erosion and turf loss on hillsides, grassy play surfaces and roadsides.
There are three ingredients to making compost:
Brown stuff: Dead leaves, branches, twigs, and a little native soil. Shred or break up to as small pieces as practical. Avoid material diseased or infested material or material contaminated by pesticides or petroleum products.
Green Stuff: Grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, garden plants, coffee grounds, wood ash, and egg shells. Again, avoid material that is diseased, infested or contaminated with chemicals or oils.
Water: The right proportion of water in the compost activates the biological activity.
Other Stuff that is OK to Compost:
Horse or cow manure, cardboard (torn up or shredded), clean paper shredded, dryer or vacuum lint, hair and fur, hay and straw, sawdust, nut shells other than black walnut.
Do not Compost:
Black walnut leaves or twigs, coal or charcoal ash (only firewood ash), dairy products, diseased or infested plants, fats including grease lard or oils, meat including fish bones or scraps, pet wastes, or yard trimmings with possible chemical residues.
Making your Compost Pile
Select a spot for your compost pile or bin on bare mineral soil that is fairly level and receives plenty of sun. Compost piles that are contained on at least three sides will decompose quicker. There are a number of materials you can make a bin from such as stone, wire fencing, wood pallets, or several side by side turning bins. Turning bins make turning the compost easier by just turning it into the next bin. It requires more space and more compost.
–Chop your compost materials up whenever possible. The more surface area available, the faster the decomposition.
–Size the compost pile correctly. . A pile should be between 3 and 6 feet square. Smaller than this and the pile won’t be able to generate enough heat for decomposition. Larger than this and it won’t get enough oxygen which could lead to unpleasant smells.
–Place large or course materials at the bottom of the pile to introduce air into the pile and drain excess water. Also, do not cover the pile with plastic or any impervious material. Air needs to circulate.
-The first layer should be some branches, twigs and other course ‘brown’ material -up to about 6”.
–Start adding your green materials up to 8-10” thick. Keep the compost ‘sponge damp’ moist.
– When you’ve dumped the above amount of green stuff in, add some native soil, compost inoculants, or topsoil on top (an inch or so will do).
– To speed decomposition up a bit, you can add manure, lime, or wood ash to the top. These materials add nutrients and reduce the pH of the mix.
–Repeat the above steps when the pile or bin is full.
The pile will generate some heat as the bacteria start their work. This is a good sign. The pile can be left alone to compost in 12 months, or the pile can be turned every couple of weeks to greatly accelerate the process. This yields nice compost in one growing season. Compost is ready when the material is brown, crumbly, and earthy smelling. If you have unpleasant smells in the compost, turn the pile well and give it more time. Work your finished humus into the top soil layers of flower, shrub or tree beds. Vegetable gardens can be top dressed any time of the year. For lawn applications, apply as a ½ inch layer each spring and rake in.
It is hard to know the exact nutrient make up of compost as it is created. This can lead to swings in soil acidity, nutrient excesses or nutrient deficiencies. It is a good idea to have your soil tested every three years or so. Soil amendments can then be added to soils before serious growth problems reach the plant. You can obtain composting materials and advice at any of the Oakland nursery stores and many websites.
-Provided by Oakland Columbus