ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
This Earth Day, do yourself, your yard and garden-and the Earth-a favor by starting a compost pile to convert your yard wastes into your own brand of nutrient-rich humus.
The Earth will thank you for recycling your kitchen, garden and yard waste into something useful and doing your part to replenish the Earth’s soil.
Your body will thank you too because fruits and vegetables grown in nutrient-rich soil are more nutritious.
And your lawn and garden will thrive.
“Composting certainly makes excellent mulch to put around trees and flower beds. That’s probably the single greatest benefit,” said Rickey Roberts, Marion County extension agent. “There are also benefits in working compost into our gardens in terms of organic matter. Some of our soil can get a little tight around here.”
Working compost into your garden improves the looseness and workability of soil. It helps break up tight clay soil and makes sandy soils more fertile and better at holding water
Compost also protects plant roots from sun and wind damage, promotes weed and erosion control and enables plants to better withstand drought conditions.
Composting can be a money saver too. Not only will you save the time, effort and expense of packing up grass clippings and leaves and transporting them to the local burn site, but you may find you can do without expensive fertilizers, soil amendments and commercial mulch.
No wonder compost is sometimes referred to as “black gold.”
The first step in starting a home compost pile is finding a location.
Pick a spot with well-drained ground in a sunny or partially shaded location. Find an out of the way yet accessible location within reach of the water hose.
If you are concerned about aesthetics, find a spot where the pile is shielded by a bush or is out of the neighbors’ view.
The compost pile itself can be as simple or complex as you choose to make it.
The quickest and easiest way to start a pile is to designate a spot on the ground and start accumulating materials there.
Some people choose to enclose the pile for aesthetic and containment purposes. While a wide variety of compost bins are available commercially, a homemade bin may meet your needs just as well at significantly less cost.
Compost bins are usually square or circular and may be made of scrap lumber, wire or slat fencing, chicken wire, bricks, concrete blocks, hay bales, railroad ties or anything else you have handy.
The KSU Extension Service suggests strapping together five old pallets to form a cube.
The size of your pile depends on how much yard and kitchen waste you have and how much compost you need.
“For most households a pile 5 feet wide by 5 feet long or a circular pile about 5 feet in diameter is sufficient,” says a brochure titled, “Making and Using Compost” put out by K-State Extension.
A pile of at least 3 feet square is necessary to sustain the required biological reactions.
Some people prefer to have two bins-one with ready-to-use compost and the other for compost in the works.
The list of suitable compost materials is long. It includes leaves, grass clippings, weeds, garden refuse, straw, corn cobs, cold wood ashes, sawdust, unusable hay, garden mulch, kitchen scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, old bread, grains, human and pet hair, farm animal manure, pine needles and shredded newspaper.
In the past, composters were cautioned against using newspapers in the piles because of potentially toxic ink.
Black ink is now considered safe for garden use, and many newspapers today are using safe, soy-based ink instead of petroleum-based ink for their colored pages.
If you are curious, call your newspaper office and ask. (The Free Press is printed with soy-based ink.)
Avoid the shiny colored inserts though. Someone other than the newspaper often prints advertising inserts, and they may contain toxic ink.
Woody materials may be composted, but they take much longer than other ingredients in your pile.
Don’t compost meat, fish, bones, dairy products, fats or oils, pet waste or diseased plant materials.
Building the pile
Experts recommend starting your pile with a 2- to 3-inch layer of straw, sawdust or twiggy material on the bottom for good air circulation. A 2- to 3-inch layer of soil or sand may also be used as a base.
Then simply add alternating layers of green material and brown material.
Green matter includes grass clippings and garden and kitchen waste (uncooked fruit and vegetables). Green materials are nitrogen-rich and speed the composting process.
Brown matter includes dry leaves, straw or shredded newspaper. Browns provide carbon and are energy rich.
Some composting aficionados recommend more specific ratios of greens to browns, but others say you can’t really go wrong unless you have way too much of either type. Experiment and find the mix that works best for you.
Care and maintenance
Even if you do nothing other than watch the pile from inside your house, the materials will compost in about a year’s time. But most gardeners will want to help the compost along by turning the pile and keeping it moist.
Turning the pile involves using a pitchfork or compost turning tool to lift the compost from underneath and mix it up, exposing the material to the air.
Recommendations on how often to turn the pile vary from every three days to every three weeks. But there is agreement that the more it is turned, the quicker the compost will cook.
The pile also needs moisture, and in the dry part of the summer, you may need to water it. If the pile gets too dry, the materials may get too hot and turn into an ash-like material that is useless as compost.
By the same token, you don’t want your pile to be soggy. Finding the right balance is a matter of trial and error.
What is going on in there?
Once you add the necessary ingredients to your pile, Mother Nature takes over. Thousands of microorganisms in the pile get to work transforming the organic waste materials to rich humus.
This process produces heat and will kill off most harmful bacteria and weed seeds. As the organic material is used up, the available oxygen is reduced, the temperature in the middle drops, and the process stops. Turning or stirring the pile puts more oxygen into the pile and the heat will build, speeding the process.
According to K-State Extension, the ideal temperature for the pile is 150-160 degrees. If you don’t want to take your kitchen thermometer out to your compost pile, you can test the temperature of the pile by inserting a metal rod into the center. If it comes out warm, the pile is doing its job. You also may see steam coming from the pile. That is another sign that the process is going well.
How long will it take?
The composting process can take as little as two weeks or as long as a year depending on the amount of materials, the size of the pile and the moisture and oxygen present.
If you are tending your pile by turning it frequently and ensuring it is moist, your compost will be completed in a matter of weeks.
If you are impatient and want to speed up the composting process, you can add a small amount of commercial garden fertilizer to the pile. K-State Extension recommends adding one to two cups per square yard of area.
You can also add an inch or two of fresh, rotted or dried farm animal manure to the pile.
Both the fertilizer and manure provide a source of nutrients for the microorganisms that do the work decomposing the materials.
As it progresses, the pile will shrink substantially. The completed compost will be dark, moist and crumbly and will have a rich earthy odor.
How can you use it?
The end result of your efforts will be a rich, organic fertilizer for your garden or yard. It may be used as a soil amendment in flower beds, vegetable gardens or lawns. It also works well as a seed starting mix and as moisture-holding mulch around trees, plants and shrubs.
Compost can also be mixed with water (in equal parts) to make a “compost tea” that may be used as a soluble fertilizer or starter solution.
No doubt you will find more uses for compost than you have supply.
So when you’re finished reading this newspaper, use it as the first contribution to your new compost pile.
Then take the money you save from not buying trash bags and soil amendments, go to your local garden store and buy a beautiful flowering shrub to hide your pile.
Whenever you enjoy it’s show, you can remember the contribution you’re making to the environment.