Anyone who prefers to buy their vegetables and flowers from the local grocery store will have a difficult time understanding the gardener's delight digging into a smelly pile of compost, or having a truck load of manure dumped in their yard. Really, who in their right mind, would pay to have a substance excreted by animals brought to their home?
A gardener. One who knows that good manure and compost can be the difference between a lush garden and a sparse, struggling one. And lets not forget the aroma, a gardener will describe the smell of compost or manure, as "sweet", or "rich", the average person, with no interest in gardening, is more likely to use the word "disgusting".
An experienced gardener knows that compost and manure are the life-blood of a garden. It is the primary way to enrich your soil naturally, and provide all the nutrients your plants will need to grow healthy and strong. The addition of compost and manure can transform even the worst soil into black gold, given enough time.
Composting is a natural biological process where bacteria, fungi and other organisms decompose organic materials such as leaves, grass clippings, and food wastes. The resulting product is called compost. Although composting occurs naturally, the process can be accelerated and improved by human intervention.
Where do you start?
In this article the focus will be on composting. If you are new to gardening, knowing how to start and build a good compost bin may seem a little complex, you may ask, "How do I build a compost bin" or "What can I put in my compost bin". Overall, making compost is relatively simple.
We will focus on compost bins and tumblers. Tumblers are excellent alternatives for gardeners living in the city who may not have room for a compost bin, or where city bylaws prohibit open compost bins. Putting kitchen scraps in the compost bin versus the garbage can have the added benefit of reducing foul odors. You will also have the peace of mind knowing you are contributing less garbage to the local landfill.
It is best to have two compost bins, one for fresh compost additives, and the other for use in your garden each season. Using two compost bins ensures you will always have good compost at the start of each gardening season. If you prefer to use tumblers, the same principal applies. One is in development, the other is ready to use.
There are two ways of composting, "Passive" and "Managed".
This is really very basic. You have a compost bin; you throw in all the various kitchen scraps, yard waste and so on. Once in a while, you mix it up; weather, bacteria, fungi and time do the rest. Hopefully, each year, you will have useable compost. Often referred to as "The Lazy Gardener's Compost".
This requires more time and attention than passive composting, but the resulting compost will be ready sooner, and better quality. A managed compost pile is often referred to as hot compost since the pile heats up as it decomposes, thus speeding up the process.
A managed compost bin can be ready in just 6 weeks, however, unless you are using tumblers, in most cases useable compost will probably take 2 to 3 months. Chopping or shredding leaves and other materials will speed up the process drastically.
Most of the organisms that decompose organic matter in a compost bin are aerobic - this means they need air to survive, so air circulation is important. This can be done by mixing (turning the top and sides of the pile into the center) the pile up every 3 or 4 days, or when the compost begins to feel cool. Building a bin with slats allows air to enter the pile from the sides. Using both methods is best.
How fast you produce finished compost will be determined by what you add to your compost, if you chop it up and how you mix them together. Layering is a common technique, but in most cases, redundant if you hand mix the pile.
The temperature of your compost pile is critical - If it is warm or hot, everything is good. If it feels luke warm, decomposition has slowed down and you need to add more materials such as grass clippings, leaves or kitchen waste. If you prefer to be very precise with the management of your compost, a compost thermometer can be used see how well your compost is doing. They are not expensive and readily available. If you can't buy locally, you will easily find them online.
Keeping your compost pile moist is important. Too dry, and the pile will not decompose as quickly. A compost pile should be moist, but not wet - add water or dry matter as required to maintain this balance. To much water will reduce air in the compost thus slowing down the decay process. A good sign of healthy compost is worms. Worms don't like it too cold, too hot, too wet or too dry - they can be used to monitor the condition of your compost.
A new compost pile will begin to heat up within a few days as the microorganisms thrive and your pile begins to decompose. Ideally, your pile should heat to about 140-160 degrees to kill weed seeds and diseases that may be present in garden plants.
Building a compost bin
A compost bin can be made from almost any scrap lumber. It does not need to be pretty; it simply has to hold all the different household and yard waste you will be adding to it. See the image to your right; this is typical of a compost bin.
A good design will be at least 3' x 3' x 3'. This will provide enough mass to generate optimal temperatures. A bin should incorporate removable front panels, usually in the form of boards, which can be removed one at a time. This is important since the weight of mature compost against a single large panel may make it impossible to open. If you want to get fancy, you can add a gate on the front.
There are many ways to build a compost bin, the details of which are too lengthy for this article. However, a simple search on Google using the term "How to build a compost bin" will provide numerous links to websites offering you many ways to go about building a compost bin. One website in particular that offers excellent information and drawings is: http://muextension.missouri.edu/xplor/agguides/hort/g06957.htm This website offers a few alternatives for composting which we do not have room to include here. One is heap composting and the other is worm composting - although worms can, and should be added to any compost bin, regardless of design.
Compost bins need to be turned by hand (mixed) to help with the decomposing process and help recently added scraps decompose quicker. Mixing helps improve overall quality of your compost.
You have probably seen these on Internet or at your local garden shop. Basically, they are a round tub, mounted on a frame, or base, designed to turn compost and speed development. Many will also collect compost tea (excess nutrient rich moisture that seeps into the base of the tumbler).
Compost tumblers are perfect if space is limited, or city bylaws do not permit open compost bins. They are also ideal if you have a small garden and do not need a large bin. These bins work by rotating the bin every few days, which can speed up compost development by as much a 3 times. The rotation helps to mix compost evenly and create very good compost.
Pictured is a compost tumbler called the "Envirocycle Composter" which retails at $130 to $160 US.
What can you put in your compost?
- Grass Clippings (thin layers 1 - 2 inches)
- Leaves and yard waste
- Dead plants from end of season garden
- Weeds without seed heads
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Egg shells
- Citrus fruits (cut up)
- Pure wool jumpers and socks (cut up)
- Pure cotton articles (cut up)
- Blood and bone (with no meat)
- Shredded newspaper
- Small amounts of wood ash
- Any Type Of Plastic
- Weeds with seeds (personal recommendation)
- Bulbous weeds
- Weeds with runners
- Pet Droppings
- Dead Vertebrate Animals
- Uncooked Meats
- Cooked Meats
- Diary Products (Except Egg Shells)
- Pig manure (questionable parasites and bacteria)
- Big woody twigs
- Evergreen needles (unless you want an acidic compost)
Composting is generally not a problem and easy to do. However, sometimes things don't progress as expected and this can usually be attributed to a few common problems. Here are the most common problems and solutions:
- Bad odor There is not enough air, or your pile is too wet. Mix the pile, or add dry materials to the pile.
- Not decomposing Pile may be to dry or wet. If dry, mix the pile and moisten as you turn the compost. If wet, mix the pile and add more dry material.
- Compost feels right, but not heating up Lack of nitrogen - add items like grass clippings, manure, and other greens
- Animals attracted to the compost Are you adding meat or milk products to the pile. Avoid scraps likely to attract animals.
Compost is the best natural material to enrich and build soil. If you want black gold, you need compost. Experienced gardeners know that healthy soil, rich in organic matter, will grow healthier plants that naturally resist disease, insects, and adverse weather. Now, I ask, what more could a gardener ask for.
By Henry Reinders. Avid gardener and owner of http://www.usagardener.com Complete online gardening guide.