Compost is a mixture of rich, dark, crumbly organic material that is a great soil amendment and natural soil enhancer for your garden. Composting is the process by which vegetable scraps, manures and other organic material is broken down by worms, insects, and micro-organisms.
All organic matter, left on its own, will eventually break down into nutrients that can be absorbed by plants. Composting is simply a way of helping things along by including the right materials in the right proportions under ideal conditions. The results are often referred to as “black gold” by gardeners because of its beneficial effects in the garden.
Composting has several benefits for your garden and the environment. Organic household waste is recycled into compost, which is environmentally friendly. This decreases the garbage in our landfills. Rather than decomposing in a landfill, the organic materials are returned to the soil to nourish your garden plants.
Compost is great for indoor and outdoor plants because it improves the soil, which in turn supports healthier and more productive plants. Compost provides virtually all the essential nutrients for healthy plant growth, and it almost always releases those nutrients over time to give plants a slow, steady, consistent intake of the elements essential for growth. Compost also improves the soil’s structure, making it easier for soil to hold and use the right amount of moisture and air. Using compost to feed your lawn and garden will ensure alive and healthy soil.
The most obvious environmental benefit is that composting can significantly reduce the amount of solid waste that would otherwise find its way into the trash collection and landfill cycle. The more we compost, the less we’ll pay for the cost of trash removal and the collection of solid materials in landfills.
To get started, the location of your compost bin should be convenient to the garden, as well as close to the source of materials, lawn clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps, water, etc., without being an eyesore.
There are two basic kinds of compost piles: open bins and enclosed containers. Open bins can be constructed with wood, chicken wire, or recycled plastic. Enclosed containers usually consist of one of two designs: upright box-like containers, and rotating drums.
Whether you choose an open bin or a compost container, two chambers are always better than one. The composting process takes at least several weeks or months to decompose. You cannot add additional materials to the heap without “resetting the clock” to day one. If you add additional materials to the partially decomposed pile, you’ll have a mix of undesirable compost. I suggest you start another pile. This will ensure you get to use the compost this season.
Compost key ingredients are often things you would be tempted to throw away. Toss less in the trash and contribute more to make a great compost. You will need to provide food (material), water, and air for micro-organisms. Materials can be categorized into two types, brown (carbon-rich materials) and green (nitrogen-rich materials).
Brown materials are dry leaves, dried grass, weeds or straw. Green materials are fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds and some manure. You’re providing bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms to the compost using the brown and green materials.
Decomposition occurs naturally. The trick is to maximize the process of decomposition while avoiding the unpleasant effects of the natural process of decaying matter. Compost is good; sloppy garbage heaps and rotting food are bad. Too much green is usually the problem. The best combination of browns and greens is 4-parts brown to 1-part green.
When we alternate the browns and greens, add moisture and air, the process is speeded up. This is known as “hot” composting. The compost can reach temperatures as high as 160-degrees Fahrenheit, which will kill some weed seeds and deter worms. As the pile cools, the worms will return to assist in the decomposition.
All material should be shredded, microorganisms will work faster with smaller pieces. As microorganisms decompose the organic material, they create heat. As soon as decomposition begins, the volume of the pile will decrease.
Compost should be moistened to the damp-sponge stage. If water can be squeezed out, it’s too wet. If water cannot be squeezed out and crumbles, it’s too dry. If you squeeze and no water releases but stays compacted, it’s just right.
If you want to give the mix a little boost, one excellent and free additive is simply a shovel full of good garden soil. If you make compost with plant cuttings or grass clippings that have been sprayed with pesticides, avoid using it on edible crops. Never compost diseased plants, meats, cooking oil, butter, milk, or dog or cat manure. As this can attract rodents, flies, bees, and bears. Recycle paper, but not in the compost, chemicals could be added to the ink.
Your efforts will be maximized if you continuously turn, or mix, the heap. Mixing your heap will help keep the browns and greens in balance, distribute moisture, and add essential air to the mixture, while speeding the process. Continue to check your compost for moisture. If too dry, add water. If too wet, add brown materials (save leaves in a black plastic bag from fall clean up).
The time it takes to decompose can vary widely depending on the materials and methods used. A typical compost can take up to four months to decompose. Compost is ready when it’s dark and crumbly and mostly broken down with a pleasant, earthy, soil-like smell.
Congratulations. Your compost is ready to use.
Ideally, compost should be applied in the fall for an area that will be seeded the following spring. You can mix it into the soil prior to planting in your garden to add nutrients. It can also be used as mulch in plant beds throughout your yard. When distributing compost into your garden, you may pick up some worms with the compost. This is OK because the worms are very beneficial to your garden. They aerate the soil, which helps to bring nutrients to the soil.
Before adding compost to garden soil, have your soil’s pH, nutrient balance and organic matter content analyzed as you would before adding fertilizer or amendments.
(Spencer is a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Columbia County since 2015. She has been gardening for several years.)