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A Beginner's Guide to Composting

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Last week, we talked about the importance of soil. Healthy, mineral-rich soil feeds plants so that they produce abundant, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. Plants grown on good-quality soil also resist disease and recover from insect attacks faster.  Good soil makes good plants.

If you followed the steps provided last week and conducted a soil test, you now have a pretty good idea of the healthy of the soil in the area where you want to grow your garden.  If your soil turned up on the extreme ends of anything – extremely acidic or alkaline, for example – you may wish to contact your local county cooperative extension services.  If you don't know where you local office is, the US Department of Agriculture's website (http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/) provides a map to help you find your local office. Each office is staffed with agricultural and horticultural experts familiar with local climate, soil conditions and other aspects of nature that affect gardening. They can advise you on organic methods to adjust pH, add nutrients, or revitalize heavily farmed soil.

One of the easiest, safest and least expensive ways to improve any soil is to add compost.

What is Compost?

Compost is a mixture of decaying organic matter. Organic matter used to make compost includes vegetation, such as grass clipping and leaves, and animal manures. Only use manure from herbivores, such as cows, horses, goats, rabbits, etc. Cat, dog and other carnivore manure is more likely to contain nasty pathogens such as e.Coli bacteria and others that can get into the soil and in turn, contaminate crops.
You may have seen bags of exotic manure at the garden center. "Zoo Doo", gathered from wild animals kept in zoos, is often touted as a miracle product, along with bat guano and other exotic manures. None is necessary. Horseback riding stables frequently pay someone to pick up manure from their barn piles, so why not look through the phone book and call a few to see if you can pick up free manure? Many will welcome it. If you do wish to purchase bagged manure products at the garden center, simple cow manure should suffice.

How Do You Make Compost?

Whether you have a small kitchen garden in an urban or suburban area or a large area to play with, you can start a compost pile.

You'll need:

•    Space or container for the compost pile:  Garden centers sell bins especially made to make compost. Many rotate and can be turned using a crank-type handle or spun as a drum on a wheel.  This helps mix up the compost and aerate it, but it isn't essential. An old trash can also works just fine, or follow the instructions at the end of this week's column to make a compost frame out of recycled materials.  My own compost pile at our Virginia farm is made using recycled cement blocks; in New York, I used recycled bricks and lumber, as well as an old trash can. All of them made fine compost bins.

•    Organic material to compost:  You can compost most plant material, as long as it came from healthy plants to begin with. Grass clippings, leaves, and vegetable peels are all good for the compost pile. Fruit rinds and peels, coffee grounds and tea bags can also be added. Manure should be added to the pile and allowed to age for six months to a year before incorporating into the garden. Some gardeners recommend shredded newspaper or paper, but I have had trouble getting that to break down in the compost pile. 

•    A garden pitchfork to turn the pile and work with the compost and a bucket or wheelbarrow to move the finished compost into the garden.

Getting Started

If you buy a compost bin or tumbler, it may come with directions to help you start your pile. Compost needs organic material, warmth or heat, and moisture to decompose the materials. The bacteria that's ever-present among all living things begins to break down the plant materials in the presence of heat and moisture.

At some point, wonderful, wiggly earthworms will find your compost pile if it is placed directly on the ground. Don't panic if you see worms – they're the gardener's best friends! Many new gardeners think something is wrong when they dig into their compost pile and uncover worms, but encountering worms is a sign of a healthy compost pile.
Earthworms eat right through decaying material, and their excrement – politely called "worm castings" – are filled with vital nutrients plants love. In fact, some people keep so-called vermiculture bins in their kitchens  filled with plant material, shredded newspaper and earthworms to create worm castings that are used in the garden. There's no need for fancy vermiculture bins (and they might freak out the non-gardening family members or your children's friends who are visiting for a play date). Place a few earthworms into the compost bin or just let your compost pile remain in touch with the ground and the worms will find it.

Build a Compost Pile from Recycled Materials

To build an outdoor compost bin from recycled materials, you'll need bricks or cement blocks scavenged from construction sites or neighbor's home renovation projects.  Simply pile them up to make a walled square. Place materials to compost inside the square.  Wet down the pile occasionally, especially during rainy seasons, and the pile should get started. You can also start very simply and pile up material in a ring or circle.

Another method to make a compost bin is to use metal stakes and chicken wire or similar wire. Pound the stakes into the ground to form a big circle, then string the wire mesh around the outside, attaching it to the stakes and closing it off to make a big circular bin. Voila – instant compost bin, with great air circulation thanks to the open sides.  You can use any stakes you have around the house or can scavenge, as well as wire from old projects around the house.

Care and Maintenance

Once you've started your compost pile, the only thing you need to do is add more material and a little water if the weather is particularly dry.     Compost piles need to be turned or stirred every so often. I turn my pile in the fall and spring. Take the pitchfork and dig underneath, turning the material over.  If the pile is breaking down correctly, you will find rich, crumbly black earth underneath.  The rick black stuff that looks like crumbled chocolate cake is compost that is ready to be spread in the garden.

You cannot 'overdo' compost or add too much.  So add as much compost as you like. It's easier to add it before planting your crops in the spring. I add compost in the fall and throughout the winter, whenever I get the chance, so that when spring arrives I'm ready to plant.

Problems with Compost Piles

Generally, there are two major problems gardeners experience with compost piles: the material doesn't decompose, or there's a strong odor in the pile.

If the material isn't decomposing, you may have too much dry or brown material and not enough wet or green material. This can happen when you add a lot of autumn leaves, for example, but little or no vegetable and fruit scraps or grass clippings. Try increasing the amount of wet or green material added. Adding water can help. When all else fails, companies such as Gardens Alive sell organic compost activator. It generally contains beneficial bacteria to jumpstart the decomposition process.

The second problem, strong odor, occurs from too much nitrogen in the pile. Mixing the pile  helps by breaking up big batches of "hot" or green material. I've had this problem in the spring after adding grass from the lawnmower bag; the main pile was filled mostly with brown autumn leaves, and I was lazy and just layered the grass clipping on top.  This created a lot of very hot material that steamed on the top but didn't do much to break down the leaves. Mixing up the pile helped.

I've also found that adding a vent stack to the pile can increase air circulation. A vent stack is made from a section of PVC pipe with holes drilled into randomly around the outside of the pipe.  I used a 4-6" diameter stack pipe and drilled holes the size of quarters around it.  I then plunged the pipe into the middle of the compost pile.  Air blowing through the holes in the stack circulates down and into the pile, encouraging more even decomposition.

If all else fails, you may need to spread a little bit of garden lime on a hot pile to calm down odors. Watch what you are throwing into the pile too; it may be that someone in the family was overzealous and added cooked food or meat scraps.  Remember, never add items from kitty's litter box, cooked food scraps, meat scraps or leftover pet food!

Good Fences – and Well-Placed Compost Piles – Make Good Neighbors

Before I close this week's column on composting, there's one tip that's essential. Locate your compost pile well away from your neighbor's backyard!  Growing up with a gardening dad and gardening neighbors, we never had a complaint about our compost pile. But when new people moved into the houses behind ours in our suburban neighborhood, they called to complain about the foul odors coming from our neighbor's compost pile; his pile was too rich in the spring time.  Keep the peace with your neighbors and if they complain, be ready to tackle any odor problems.  Talk to your county cooperative extension agent if these tips aren't enough. Happy gardening!

Composting Resources

Other resources on composting:
•    University of Missouri website with detailed instructions on building compost bins: http://extension.missouri.edu/publications/DisplayPub.aspx?P=G6957
•    New York Times article on composting: http://topics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/manure-safe-or-not/
•    EPA website provides composting information: http://www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/rrr/composting/index.htm

And for those now interested in vermiculture, or composting with earthworms, Earth 911 offers a basic introduction: http://earth911.com/blog/2007/04/02/composting-with-worms/

About Jeanne Grunert

After a successful 20 year career as a marketing executive, Jeanne Grunert traded in the glamour of New York City and perks like a Starbucks on every corner for a 17 acre organic farm in Virginia.  She's a writer, hobby farmer, marketing consultant and entrepreneur, and a frequent contributor to RawPeople. For more gardening tips and a glimpse into life at Seven Oaks, the Grunert's farm, visit her blog at http://sevenoaks-jeanne.blogspot.com/   Her gardening book, Get Your Hands Dirty – a Beginner's Guide to Gardening, may be purchased from Blurb Press: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/762133

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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