Have you ever had really great soil for gardening around your house? Few do. In my case, the clay-like soil prevented good water drainage and was difficult for cultivating new plants. At other times the sand content was too high, providing the opposite problem – water retention. Additionally, proper soil nutrients for great plants can be missing. One could replace all the soil – a very expensive time consuming process, build raised bedsor work to improve existing conditions. To do this, composting is the answer.
Composting is the decomposition of plant remains and other once-living materials to make an earthy, dark, crumbly substance that is excellent for adding to houseplants or enriching garden soil. It is a great way to help the environment. Composting is nature’s process of recycling decomposed organic materials into a rich soil known as compost.
Composting is a lot like cooking, and the easiest compost recipe calls for blending parts of green or wet material, high in nitrogen and brown or dry material, high in carbon.
Materials that are excellent for composting are kitchen waste, like coffee grounds, canning wastes, things you might throw down the garbage disposal. Meat, bones, eggs, cheese, fats and oils are not recommended for backyard composting because they attract animals. Composting materials are divided into two types, green and brown. Green materials include green leafy plant residues like weeds, grass clippings, vegetable tops and flower clippings. Brown materials include fall leaves, straw, sawdust, wood chips and shredded newspapers. To speed up decomposition, use two-parts green material to one-part brown material. For best results, mix materials high in nitrogen such as clover, fresh grass clippings, and livestock manure and those high in carbon such as dried leaves.
First, choose a location for your compost bin. Place the bin at least 20 feet away from the nearest house. Avoid placing the bin against a tree or wooden building; the compost could cause the wood to decay. Bins can be built from scrap lumber, old pallets, snow fence, chicken wire, or concrete blocks. When building a composting bin, such as with chicken wire, scrap wood, or cinder blocks, be sure to leave enough space for air to reach the pile. Usually when building a composting bin, one side is left open or can be opened to facilitate turning the materials. Once your bin is in place, you can begin immediately to fill it with yard wastes and kitchen scraps. While a bin will help contain the pile, it is not absolutely necessary – some prefer to compost in a large open area.
Basically, backyard composting is an acceleration of the same process nature uses. If left alone, these same materials will eventually break down, decompose and produce soil rich materials. Eventually, the rotting leaves are returned to the soil, where living roots can finish the recycling process by reclaiming the nutrients from the decomposed leaves. Home composting provides ideal conditions to greatly reduce the time it takes
Cooking refers to the process where the compost heats up and breaks down, which is necessary before you can use it as soil additive in the garden and on your house plants. The cooking process takes about 4-8 weeks once you stop adding to the bin. Don’t be surprised by the heat of the pile or if you see worms, both of which are part of the decomposition process. If you want accelerate the process, turn it every four days, but more frequently than that is not recommended.
Carbon and Nitrogen are the essential elements of a compost pile. Carbon rich materials are referred to as “browns”. Carbon-rich, relatively low-nutrient material are slow to decay. The rate at which breakdown occurs depends on several factors – oxygenation, temperature, water content, surface area size, and the carbon to nitrogen ratio Soak high carbon materials with water before composting. Alternate six to eight inch layers of high carbon materials such as leaves and other dry plant debris, with layers of high nitrogen material such as grass clippings, kitchen waste or manure.
Nitrogen is the most important food nutrient, because a nitrogen shortage drastically slows the composting process. Brown materials composted alone require supplemental nitrogen to feed the decomposing bacteria. Greens are quick to rot and they provide important nitrogen and moisture. Add one-quarter to one-half cup nitrogen fertilizer per bushel of brown material. If you are low on high-nitrogen material, you can add a small amount of commercial fertilizer containing nitrogen. In other words, the ingredients placed in the pile should contain 25 to 30 times as much carbon as nitrogen. Some ingredients with higher nitrogen content are green plant material such as crop residues, hay, grass clippings, animal manures.
Manure may be used to increase your compost piles nitrogen supply. Animal manure should only be collected from vegetarian animals, such as horses, cows, sheep, poultry, etc. Sheep and cattle manure don’t drive the compost heap to as high a temperature as poultry or horse manure, so the heap takes longer to produce the finished product.
Moisture and oxygen are important factors in the composting process as both influence temperature. An active compost pile will be warm – frequently between 75 – 85 degrees. Every time you add fresh grass or kitchen waste you add some moisture retention to your compost pile. Moisture is provided by rain, but you may need to water or cover the pile to keep it damp. To test for adequate moisture, reach into your compost pile and grab a handful of material and squeeze it; if a few drops of water come out, it’s probably got enough moisture, if it doesn’t, add water.
The most common problem is unpleasant, strong odors. To prevent this ensure a good flow of oxygen in the compost, don’t overload the pile with food waste so that the food sits around too long, and if the bin contents become too wet add in more dry materials.