A bountiful supply of compost is a gardener’s best friend. Fortunately for all of us, this black gold is easily produced at home with ingredients we would normally discard. Food scraps and yard waste together make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away. Keeping these materials out of our landfills and using them to create a valuable commodity is recycling at its best.
The benefits of compost to our gardens are many. As it improves soil structure and nutrient holding capacity, it reduces fertilizer requirements. Root growth and yields are enhanced. Water infiltration and drought tolerance are improved. Cultivation is made easier as the compost reduces soil compaction and crusting. Plants are protected from disease while the microbial and earthworm populations increase.
A compost bin can be purchased or constructed from wood or fencing material. A manageable size is three to four feet in height and width. If using wood, make sure to leave breathing space between boards. The bin should be placed in a convenient shady place that is easily accessible all year.
The recipe for compost is simply brown and green material plus water. Brown material provides carbon and includes dead leaves, twigs, vegetable stalks, straw, untreated wood chips and sawdust, pine needles, and shredded paper. Greens provide nitrogen and include grass clippings, manure, fur, blood meal, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, eggshells, fireplace ashes, and coffee grounds. Water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter. Keep compost safe by refraining from using black walnut tree leaves, coal or charcoal ash, glossy paper, dairy products, diseased plants, fats, grease, oils, meat or fish scraps, pet wastes, and yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides.
Begin composting by placing a three inch layer of twigs or straw on bare earth at the bottom of your bin. Alternate layers of brown and green material keeping the thickness of the brown layer about three times that of the green. Moisten each layer by misting it lightly with a garden hose. Keep adding materials in alternating layers until the bin is full. Compost should be kept slightly moist and covered. Cutting or shredding materials and turning the pile every few days will greatly speed up the decomposition process. Compost can be formed in two weeks to two years, depending on the materials and method used.
Decomposition is performed by naturally occurring micro-organisms that utilize the organic materials for their food and energy sources. The compost is ready for use when it has transformed into a rich dark and crumbly humus-like soil, mostly broken down, with an earthy smell to it. It can then be applied liberally to vegetable and flower beds, trees, lawns, and house plants. It is a wonderful mulch and fertilizer for new plantings and established plants as well.
A mature compost is invaluable to the farmer, gardener, and homeowner. It is well worth the effort to make composting a part of our lifestyles. Keeping a compost pail under our kitchen sinks and emptying it into our compost bin when it’s full of scraps becomes a easy routine. Tossing green and brown materials into the outdoor bin as they are collected will soon result in happier plants and less waste. Listen to WHEO 92.7 at 8:30 am on May 26th as Patrick County Master Gardeners discuss organic gardening and non toxic weed control.