Compost Your Way to Healthy Plants

>> Monday, January 10, 2011

Composting can be as simple as digging a hole in your garden, throwing in kitchen scraps, grass clippings, shredded paper and then covering it and letting it all feed the worms and other micro organisms that live in your soil. You can build elaborate bins and maintain a huge pile of compost to feed your entire garden.

The basic concept about composting is that it feeds the soil, not the plants. Sure, plants benefit from the rich nutrients found in compost and will never overwhelm your plants with too much of one nutrient over another. But compost is a soil conditioner. It breaks down clay so water doesn’t sit in it. It firms up sand so water won’t run through it. It attracts all manner of organisms that aerate and feed the soil. It also creates healthier plants that don’t require the use of pesticides.

Did you know that 25% of everything we send to the landfill consists of kitchen scraps that could be composted instead and returned to the soil? Modern agriculture is ruining our soil legacy. Another reason to eat organically: Organic farms feed the soil, rather than killing it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Even if you live in the city--even if you live in an apartment--you can compost. Try building your own worm bin!

There is a growing interest in worm composting (vermicomposting). If you have a tiny yard or live in an apartment and have an abundance of food scraps, this type of composting is for you.  

What is compost really made up?
Compost is any kind of decayed organic material. Anything that nature makes is compostible. This compostible material is referred to as "green waste." Finished compost looks like rich soil. It’s dark and crumbly with an earthy smell.

Green waste is made up of:
  •  grass clippings (if recently chemically treated, say within the previous two weeks, allow chemicals to leech out before using it),
  •  leaves,
  •  tree branches that have been ground up
  •  farm animal manures (no dog or cat manure),
  •  coffee grounds,
  •  any kind of paper and cardboard (not the treated, glossy, colored stuff – the inks can be toxic),
  •  clothing made of natural fibers,
  •  kitchen waste (no meat),
  • sawdust
  • straw

A healthy compost pile will be the home of molds, bacteria, fungi, earthworms, mites, and beetles. These act as the master composters, breaking everything down into useable material. Picture what happens in nature without human intervention: plants grow up, parts fall to the ground, they die, micro organisms eat these materials and return them to the ground becoming nutrients for the next plants. Our compost pile will be a part of this process only we are placing everything into a pile and spreading it where we need it.

Compost is not particularly high in essential nutrients, (N-P-K), and is considered a soil conditioner rather than a fertilizer. However, organic matter is a valuable soil amendment because it:
  •  improves soil structure,
  •  aids in necessary microbial activity in the soil,
  •  attracts beneficial organisms such as earthworms,
  •  can suppress several soil born diseases
  •  holds its nutrients in organic or slow release form, allowing for availability throughout the growing season.

By the time the compost cooking process is complete, weed seeds, fungus spores and other undesirable elements that may have gone into your compost bin, should no longer be viable. Compost can be added to your gardens at anytime, either turned into the soil or used as a mulch or top dressing.

Learning About Compost

Where do I put my compost pile?
Placing your compost where it is easily accessible to the garden is always best. I have a fenced-in concrete pad, in one corner of the yard, that the previous homeowner used to keep his dog. After taking one side of the fence down this became a perfect site. At first I thought concrete would not work because I would need ground under the pile. But I have not had any problems with it. Worms have even crawled up into the pile.

Dedicating one raised bed each year to a compost pile works too. This photo shows just such an arrangement, drive either metal or wood posts in the corners and wrap chicken wire around the posts. As you clean up all the garden debris, it goes into these new bins. Add shredded leaves and some grass clippings to get the piles heated up. Turn the piles a few times and by the Spring the debris will be "black gold", and the beds will be revitalized! If you can leave a bed one whole season just for kitchen scarps, etc next year the soil will be perfectly rich for planting.

A compile can be started any time of year. Once you get in the habit of always adding to it and then see the rich beautiful soil you have produced you’ll wonder why you waited so long to do it.


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