There are so many benefits for composting that just about everyone should be doing it! Reducing the waste-stream to the landfill, using kitchen plant waste to return nutrients to the soil, increasing fertility, improving soil structure, reducing water needs — it’s all there.
Besides all this, composting is an entirely scalable operation, ranging from the counter top compost crock to a wire bin at the back of the yard, all the way up to large row-pile operations.
As anxious as I am to jump into all the specifics of composting, I have a correction to make to last week’s article on pruning of fruit trees. Several of you let me know of the typo — thanks! I’m glad to see that I have such careful and interested readers, and unhappy for the mistake at the same time. I stated, “If you injure more than 40-50 inches of the circumference of the tree by cutting into the cambium layer just under the bark, your tree will never produce well.” I’ll say! Not only would such an injury prevent the tree from producing, but it would also assure its demise. I meant to say if the injury comprised more than 40-50 percent of the circumference of the tree, it would never produce well. That’s because such an injury would severely limit the pathway for tree nutrients. Such a tree could survive, but it’s highly unlikely it would thrive.
Now for composting. Composting may be daunting to you because you’ve heard some scary information such as odor problems, or having to use precise proportions of materials to be successful. Let me put your concerns to rest. With the following approach, your compost will have NO odor problems. I compost large amounts of materials and have no unpleasant odors coming from the curing materials. The finished material smells like the forest floor after a rain. As for precise ratios of materials, nature knows no such stringent approach. If you get the needed materials in a rough proportion, you will have success, and you can fine tune from there.
With some basic knowledge, very small investment, and right mindset, you can become a very successful composter this season! That’s because composting is a natural process that happens in nature ongoing. The more organic material available, with optimum temperatures and moisture, the more break down (decay) of materials happens. The more byproducts of the breakdown of plant materials, the more micro-organisms thrive, nutrients are kept in reserve, and conditions are created for further plant growth.
When we practice composting, we are “helping” nature along and simply creating conditions and fuel for the process to happen efficiently and speedily. What follows is an approach for active composting, yielding results in weeks, not months or years. Passive composting is simply putting organic materials in piles and letting it set there for many seasons. I’m in way too much of a hurry to get the “black gold” composting produces to take the slow route. Here’s what you need to know to speed the process along and get results over the next few months.
There are three basic ingredients to successfully compost. These are most easily remembered as “browns”, “greens” along with a small amount of “native soil” that contains the micro-organisms that will inoculate the mixture of material and get the process going. “Browns” are carbon rich materials, while “Greens” are nitrogen rich ingredients. If these two are mixed roughly 50 percent each by volume, with native soil inoculant added, you will get microbial action that will begin breaking down the mass. The smaller the pieces you begin with, the faster they will break down. This makes sense. It’s easy to visualize that sawdust would break down faster than a board, right?
Browns (carbon) that can be used include sawdust, shredded paper, tea bags, coffee grounds, wood chips, animal bedding chips, stale bread and grain products, fall leaves, dryer lint, chopped straw and yard waste such as shredded twigs and branches. Don’t forget that you can use spent potting mixes from last season’s potted plants as well. Greens (nitrogen) that go into the mix include glass clippings, kitchen waste such as past-prime fruit and vegetables and trimmings, coffee grounds, banana and potato peels, tea bags, hair clippings, pine needles, fresh herbivore and poultry manures, and chopped weeds that have not gone to seed yet (be careful on this one!).
Composting itself is done in what is commonly called a pile. “Pile” is a generic term, as composting may be done in a tumbler bin, large pile, row, pit, or wire open-bottom pen. The approach is up to you depending on your available space, quantity of materials on hand to compost, and amount of compost needed for your yardscape. Whatever container you do your composting in, you will need sufficient mass to keep temperatures up (open systems require about a cubic yard of mass to maintain internal heat). Mix the two types of material together, or put them in layers and then mix them, along with some soil from the surrounding area. Create as much bulk as you can with the pile. Avoid spreading it out thin. You need the mass for the material to begin heating up and maintaining heat through the activity of microorganisms. Heat is the “magic bullet” of composting. You get needed heat through a combination of oxygen, “micro-bugs” and moisture. Last year, I had portions of the inside of my 16-foot row style compost pile attain 140 degrees! If the inner temperature falls close to the outside (ambient) air temperature, you either need to turn the pile to get new fuel to the center or add some more water to dampen it. If the material is dark brown with little recognizable materials, and possesses that great “earthy” scent, it’s finished. Move it to the side or make use of it right away. Don’t set it in the sun or weather for an extended time.
If the material hasn’t broken down yet, but the heat has stalled, you need to turn it to get more oxygen and new materials into it. This is done by moving the exterior of the pile to the interior. If the pile was heated before, it used a lot of moisture. You’ll need to moisten the material, but avoid sogginess; make it moist as a lightly wrung-out sponge. Two heat cycles are usually needed to complete the compost. When done, screen-sift the compost and return unfinished materials back to the pile for more processing.
What about bad smells? This can occur only if the composting material lacks oxygen. This is called an anaerobic condition and the microbes that flourish in an oxygen-deprived environment smell putrid. As long as you keep oxygen in the mass by turning it from time to time, as well as keeping moisture at a moderate level, you will not have objectionable odors. The desirable microbes, that will do the majority of the decomposition work, are aerobic. They thrive with a sufficient supply of oxygen, so oblige them.
Are there materials you should avoid using as compost materials? Definitely! Cat, dog, and yes, human manure are no-no’s. Greases, lards, oils, and meats are all poor candidates and can cause bad odors as well due to outright rotting and attraction of pests, flies, and vermin. In addition, motor oils, paints, ashes (potash content is the main ingredient of lye), diseased plants, and weeds that have gone to seed should all be shunned.
To maximize the use of your compost, apply it on the surface of growing beds or under plants, shrubs and trees, and work it in only a couple of inches. That is where it will do its most good by holding and releasing nutrients and moisture, improving soil structure, and moderating soil temperature. One of the greatest compliments to your work will be the earthworms and other soil life you’ll see develop in the areas you amend with your own homegrown compost. Stick with it; it will happen.
If you’d like to talk more about composting or other gardening topics, stop by and see me this Saturday morning at the Tooele Valley Nursery along Highway 36 between Tooele and Stansbury Park. I’ll be on hand along with the TVN Crew to answer your gardening and composting questions. I’ll be there from 10 a.m. to noon. Stop by and chat. It’s an exciting time of year. Spring is here, and I’m so excited that I wet my plants.
UPCOMING GARDENER EVENTS
Saturday Gardening Workshops
Every Saturday in March at Tooele Valley Nursery at 10 a.m., 425 E. Cimmarron Way and state Route 36. Walk and Talks, question and answer sessions, localized advice on what works in our area.
Free Small Space Gardening Workshop
Saturday, March 22, Tooele Home Depot, 222 E. 2400 North, offered both at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Taught by Jay Cooper, topics will be Self-Watering Containers, Raised and Square Foot Gardening, and Soil Bag Instant Gardens. Hands-on demonstrations, plans, material lists will be available. Contact Jay Cooper at email@example.com or 435-830-1447.
Gardener Talk Breakfasts
Beginning in April, once a month through October at the Stockton Miners Café. Dates and times coming soon. Informal conversation, insights, best practices and great food in the community room at the Café. Admission is the price of whatever you order for breakfast! Stay tuned for more information.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.