A Great Time to Make Garden Compost
Great time of year to make Garden Compost
It's a great time of year to make garden compost. Falling leaves, summer-spent garden plants, and the weeds that you've been meaning to pull, are all great materials for composting. Like baking a cake, using the right ingredients and following a few simple instructions will insure success.
The most important ingredient of compost is organic material. Leaves, twigs, chipped and shredded branches, small wood chips, grass clippings, weeds and spent garden plants are yard and garden waste that can be used. Fruits and vegetables, including peels and seeds, nut shells, coffee grounds and tea leaves are kitchen wastes that can be used. Other materials such as straw, sawdust and wood shavings, and animal manures can also be used. Do not however, add human or pet manures, meat, bones, animal fats, oils, or dairy products to compost piles.
These organic materials break down and become compost thanks to the efforts of a host of living organisms. The bacteria that goes to work in the initial stages of decomposition arrive in the compost pile on the organic matter you place there. With the proper amount of air, moisture and food source (organic matter), these bacteria thrive. And in the process of doing their work they heat up the pile to temperatures that kill pathogens, parasites and most weed seeds.
To obtain the proper heating, compost piles must measure at least 3 feet in each direction: side to side, back to back and from the ground up. The compost pile can be maintained with or without any housing. Very effective bins can be made from wood pallets, concrete reinforcing wire, or concrete blocks stacked to allow for ventilation. Commercially made bins offer various features related to looks and convenience. Whether home-made or store-bought, a bin should be sturdy and allow for drainage and easy turning. Remember that an area no less than 3 feet cubed (27 cubic feet) is required for composting.
Locate the composter in a partly sunny spot that is well drained, protected from drying winds, and near a source of running water. Remember to consider accessibility and aesthetics. Try to make it easy to get materials to and from the compost area. Though a compost pile is not necessarily an eyesore, it's not much to look at either. You may want to screen it from view.
In addition to air and water, the microbes doing the composting require a balanced diet, preferably one that contains about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. To accomplish this it is necessary to use some materials high in nitrogen and some high in carbon but low in nitrogen. Grass clippings, weeds, spent garden plants or rotted manures, are higher in nitrogen. Fruit and vegetable waste, leaves wood shavings, sawdust and straw are very low in nitrogen.
Begin the compost pile by alternating layers of nitrogen-rich materials with those than are nitrogen-poor. Chop these materials as finely as possible. Smaller particle size of the organic materials will encourage faster composting. To insure proper inoculation of the pile with composting microbes, scatter small amounts of soil between layers of organic material. To each 3 to 4 inch layer apply water. Or, mix all the ingredients together and water. The compost material should be wet, but not so wet that you can squeeze water from it. In hot weather, check the pile daily to see if it needs more water.
Every 3 to 5 days, turn the pile with a pitchfork or shovel. Internal temperatures of the pile should reach 135 degrees. You can measure the temperature with a composting thermometer. Judging the temperature by touch is also possible. At 135 degrees the pile will be too hot to leave your hand in the center of the pile.
When the pile no longer generates any heat and its material is dark brown to black with no identifiable plant parts, the compost is mature and ready to use.
When mixed into our native soils for vegetable and flower gardening, compost works wonders. It makes the soil easier to cultivate, aerates and improves drainage, improves root growth, reduces alkalinity, and reduces soil pests such as nematodes. With all these benefits it's little wonder garden composting has become so popular.
Start a Compost Pile with Spring Garden Clean-up
Spring gardening usually includes general clean-up activities like trimming shrubs and vines, removing old plants from the winter garden, and picking up leaves and other plant debris. With all this great organic matter, it's a perfect time to start a compost pile.
Making a compost pile is easy. All it requires is some type of frame to hold in the garden waste, and the waste itself to compost.
Compost frames can be made by forming a piece of fencing into a cylinder and holding it together with wire. Any type of fencing will work, be it wire or wood. Even chicken wire can be used if it is staked for support. The cylinder should be large enough to accommodate a pile of garden waste that is at least three feet in diameter and three feet high. You can also make a composting bin by stacking concrete block, adobe or other masonry block. The block bin should be at least three feet wide, three feet deep and three feet high. The top and front can be left open. This 3' x 3' x 3' volume of organic matter is necessary to provide the proper "heating" of the compost pile.
Materials to compost can be a mixture of many types of organic matter. For the best composting it's desirable to have something called a good "carbon to nitrogen" ratio. These are the food sources for the microbes that actually provide the composting or decomposition of the material. A pile with carbon and nitrogen out of balance will either compost very slowly or will not have enough bulk to be of benefit when mixing into garden soil.
Materials high in nitrogen include; vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, green leaves and needles, green garden plants, grass clippings, and various types of farm manures.
Materials high in carbon include; wood chips and sawdust, bark, stems and branches, brown leaves, paper, straw and corn stalks.
There are some materials that should not be composted. They include: meat and fish scraps, fats and oils, cheeses, bones, dog and cat waste, glossy print paper, plastic, and aluminum foil.
When visualizing the composting process, picture millions of tiny "pac-men" munching their way through the compost pile. The more surface area there is for them to bite into, the faster they can do their work! That's why it's best to chop up the organic matter as fine as possible to increase the surface area and speed the composting. Fast composting is preferred over slow composting because the rapid work of the composters causes the internal temperature of the pile to heat up to 120 F and higher. High heat kills weed seed, pest insects and diseases and produces clean, pathogen-free compost.
Chopping of the organic matter for Composting
Chopping of the organic matter to be composted can be accomplished several ways. The easiest is by cutting up the material with scissors, knife or long handled machete. Leafy materials and herbaceous plants (stems and all) can be run over with a mulching mower or shredded in a plastic trash can using a string trimmer. Woody stems and branches can be broken and chopped up with a hatchet or axe or run through a chipper-shredder. Safety goggles and heavy leather gloves should be worn during chopping and shredding work.
Along with carbon, nitrogen and finely-shredded organic matter, composting requires oxygen and moisture. Composting without oxygen (anaerobic) turns organic matter slimy and very foul smelling. Composting without water drastically reduces the survival of microbe composters and thus greatly slows the composting process.
Make sure that the sides of the composting frame you select has plenty of openings for oxygen to enter. If you construct your frame with masonry blocks, leave spaces or gaps between the block to allow air to filter into the sides of the pile.
Moisten the pile thoroughly and add more water from time to time to keep the pile moist. The pile should not be soggy wet. To test the moisture level, after applying water pick up a hand-full of compost and wring it out in your hand. If water runs out, it is too wet. Let it dry out, and add enough water to keep the soil most, but not soggy. Because of our high spring and summer temperatures, it may be difficult to maintain moisture. This will not prevent the composting, but it may slow the process.
During the first few weeks of the composting process, the internal temperature of the pile will heat up to 120 F or higher. This temperature can be measured with a long-probe composting thermometer pushed into the center of the pile. Composting thermometers can be purchased from garden suppliers over the internet. A shorter probe candy thermometer may also be used by digging down to the center and then inserting the probe.
When the temperature in the center begins to drop, it's time to turn the pile. This will move the material on the outer edge of the pile into the center where it will also heat up and compost. After the pile has been turned and the composting of the inner material has completed, the compost is ready to be used.
Compost, fondly referred to as gardeners gold, is ideal for mixing into garden beds. It will greatly improve clay and sandy soils alike. Compost can be used to fill raised-bed planters, and is great mixed with potting soil or used alone to fill pots and containers for growing plants of all types. It's a fun way to turn your garden and landscape waste into a valuable garden product and, best of all, it's free!