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Composting Refresher


composting refresher
I'm guessing that regular readers have established a compost pile by now and have been diligently adding to the pile daily. It's time for a composting refresher course and a few pointers in case you've run into trouble with your compost pile. Rich, crumbly black compost really is the secret for healthy soils. The more compost you add to the soil, the healthier the plants and the more nutritious the vegetables.

Composting Refresher Course

If you're fairly new to composting, it may be worthwhile to read the following points as a refresher. Even experienced gardeners forget some of the basics.

•    What to add: Add only plant-based material to the compost pile. That shouldn't be a problem for raw vegans, whose kitchens produce prodigious fruit and vegetable peels. For those transitioning to the vegan lifestyle and who may continue to consume eggs, you can also rinse out and add eggshells to the compost pile. These add calcium and minerals.  Add grass clippings, rakes leaves, and manure to the compost pile too.

•    What not to add: Don't add weeds that you pull from the garden to the compost pile no matter how tempting it may be. Weed plants may contain seeds, and adding them to the compost pile means nurturing weed seeds along until they can find ground – most likely your vegetable garden – to germinate. Also avoid adding any spent or diseased plants from the vegetable garden as this can introduce harmful bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms into the soil and spread diseases. Lastly, never add animal by products or carnivore feces such as droppings from cat litter boxes to the compost pile. These attract vermin to the pile as well as add potentially harmful bacteria into the soil, which may be transmitted to lettuce leaves and other plants you ingest.

•    Let it rot: Compost needs warmth and moisture in order for the worms and bacteria to get to work breaking down the plant material into rich organic matter. Rain naturally provides moisture but if you want to speed things up give the pile a squirt from the hose.

•    Aerate it: Every few months, turn the compost over to aerate it. You can use a pitchfork and turn it over by the spadeful, or move it form one area to another.  I have also inserted a wide PVC pipe (recycled from a construction site garbage dumpster!) with holes drilled into it and inserted into the main pile as a sort of venting stack to build in air circulation. Tumblers purchased from garden centers naturally aerate the compost when you turn the handle and move the barrel.

•    Use it: Make sure you use the compost at the bottom of the pile first. It's helpful to dig it out when you turn the pile since turning the pile should unearth the richest compost. You'll know it's done when it resembles cake mix – rich, dark, crumbly and chocolate colored. It's okay if a few leaves haven't fully decomposed but try not to add the compost into the garden soil if it's really fresh or steaming. It's too rich and hot and may damage plants.

Potential Problems

Every once in a while I'll get a frantic email from someone asking about the following issues.

•    Worms: Worms are GOOD! You want worms and plenty of them in the compost pile. Worms do not harm plants and they build the soil. They eat the compost and poop out worm casings, or decomposed and broken down material that plants love. Their tunneling action also aerates both compost and soil.  Let the worms enjoy the compost pile and if you see them don't hesitate to add them to the garden.

•   Heat and steam: Heat and steam rising from the compost pile typically means the bacteria are hard at work breaking down the plant material, but if the compost feels blistering hot, you've got a problem. This usually happens when you add too many fresh grass clippings and too much moisture at one time.  Aerate the pile and spread out the grass, interspersing it with shredded newspaper, raked leaves or just letting it dry out a bit.

•    Strong ammonia odor: A strong odor means the pile is composting or breaking down too quickly. Add lime to the pile and aerate it before the neighbors complain.

•    Flies: Flies generally indicate a strong odor or too many kitchen scraps and not enough grass or leaves. Mix the pile to remove the temping top layer and reduce flies.

•    Pile not decomposing: If nothing is breaking down, you lack heat, moisture, bacteria, or a combination of these.  Add moisture with a squirt from the hose. To add heat, put some fresh grass clippings onto the pile or just wait for nature to do her work. Bacteria can be tricky. Some fresh cow or horse manure usually kick-starts the pile but you can also purchase organic compost starters at good garden centers or mail order companies nationwide. This powder contains the right bacteria to encourage composting and is safe to apply directly to the pile.

About the Author

Jeanne Grunert is a writer and marketing consultant who moved from New York City to a 17 acre organic farm in rural Virginia. She writes about gardening, health and raw foods for many publications, and her gardening book, Get Your Hands Dirty – A Beginner's Guide to Gardening is available in paperback and as an E book on Amazon.com or Lulu.com, the publisher's website. For more about Jeanne, her books and writing, please visit www.sevenoaksconsulting.com

These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration.  The preceding information and/or products are for educational purposes only and are not meant to diagnose, prescribe, or treat illness. Please consult your doctor before making any changes or before starting ANY exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using this information or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.

Written by:  Jeanne Grunert
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