May 5 marks the beginning of a weeklong publicity and education event celebrating the humble soil additive that is compost. In case you are not aware, compost is simply decomposed food scraps and yard waste. So why the celebration? There are so many reasons! Adding compost to your soil improves the soil structure and helps retain moisture. Compost is full of nutrients in a form that your plants can easily absorb. As a fertilizer, compost is free, 100% natural and is not dangerous for children or pets. By composting, you are sending less garbage to the dump and keeping valuable nutrients in your garden. Composting is a method that is used around the world in both wealthy and developing countries to reduce waste and create healthy soil.
It’s easy to start your own compost pile at home. Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you like. There are many commercially produced compost bins for sale, including worm bins and tumblers, but all you really need is a small space in the corner of your yard or garden. You can make a nice compost bin by wiring four wooden pallets together in a square. Another option is to make a two or three foot diameter cylinder out of a roll of wire mesh. Whatever container you choose, it must have adequate ventilation, an open bottom, and you must be able to mix it and get it out and onto your garden when it’s ready.
Choose a spot for your compost pile or bin that is close enough so you that you will remember to use it and far enough to be out of the way. Ideally it should be protected from the wind so it doesn’t dry out too fast, and has some exposure to sunlight to keep it warm and speed up decomposition.
Next, collect your materials. You want to aim for a 2:1 ratio of “browns” to “greens.” Browns include low nitrogen materials such as dry grass clippings, leaves, hay, or straw. Greens include high nitrogen materials such as food scraps and animal manure. Make sure to only use plant based food scraps like apple cores, banana peels and coffee grounds in your compost pile. Adding meats, fats, and sugary things to your pile will attract pests. Egg shells are an exception to the rule, they make an excellent addition to a compost pile. Also, only use manure from plant eating animals like horses, chickens, cows, and rabbits. Dog and cat manure may contain diseases that you do not want in your pile.
You can layer or mix the browns and greens. If it is very dry out add enough water to make the pile as damp as a wrung out sponge. Water and oxygen are necessary to keep the microbes and other decomposers working to break down the materials in your pile. About once a week, use a pitchfork or shovel to mix the pile. Sufficient oxygen prevents odors and heats up the pile. All the natural processes happening inside the pile give off a lot of heat. It’s normal for the interior temperature of a compost pile to get up to 130 degrees or more!
You can continue to add greens (kitchen scraps) to the pile, and supplement with browns if the pile gets too hot or smelly. After a couple months, stop adding to the pile and let it sit to finish breaking down. This would be a good time to start a new pile. Finished compost should be dark brown, crumbly, and have an earthy smell. Finished compost can be used as a top dressing on your lawn, tilled into your garden bed, or mixed in with potting soil.
Photo: Attendees at a recent Keep Loup Basin Beautiful composting workshop in Bassett.