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Making compost

Friday, October 09, 2009
Article courtesy of Marion Owen www.plantea.com
Sooner or later gardeners come across the word "compost." As easy as it is to say, compost has a reputation for being difficult to master. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. If I can make hot, 160-degree compost during an winter, you can too - no matter where you grow your tomatoes. It's easy. In fact, you can compost 163 materials.

Let's begin this lesson by de-mystifying compost. We'll make it easier by following a recipe. And as you'll see, making a compost pile is a lot like making a cake. And we can do it in 3 easy steps. 1) Gather up your ingredients, 2) Stir them together, and 3) let it cook.  

  • Compost recycles organic materials, from apple cores and coffee grounds, to dried leaves and Shredded Wheat.
  • Compost improves any, and all, soil types.
  • Compost provides the basic nutrients of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) as well as dozens of micro- and macro nutrients that are vital for healthy plants.
  • Compost "gives back" nutrients that flowers, herbs and vegetables remove in their normal growth processes.
  • Compost prevents nutrients from leaching away from plant roots.
  • Compost protects soil against wind and rain erosion, drought, dust storms, earthquakes and other extreme conditions.
  • Compost extends the life of landfills by reducing space needed for food and yard wastes.

The "compost cake" recipe

Did you know you can have finished compost in just 3 to 4 weeks? By combining the right ingredients, your compost pile will not only heat up to 140 degrees (F) or more, but it will "cook down" to a fluffy material that is ready to use in the garden.

For a hot, active compost pile, you need to build it all at once, not over weeks or months. Imagine making a cake by sifting the flour one day, adding eggs and oil the next and then waiting a week or so before mixing everything together and getting it into the oven. It would be a flop. Start collecting ingredients. Go on organic treasure hunts. Talk to your neighbours, ask your friends, scan the classified ads, and remember to check your own back yard.


Did you know the hair on your head contains 30 times more nitrogen
than manure? Next time you go to the hairdresser, ask for a few pounds
of this nitrogen gold mine to add to your compost.

Step 1: Collect your compost ingredients

You're looking for a combination of ingredients that will provide the right living conditions for the microorganisms and bacteria that break down the materials in the compost pile. This tiny work force of actimomycetes (act-TIN-OH-my-SEE-tees) must have food, water and oxygen to do their job. They need nitrogen (N) in order to use the carbohydrates or carbon (C) materials as food.

"Without the microorganisms at work in compost, soil would literally be dead." --Eleanore Perenyi, from "Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden"


Therefore, you want to try for a nitrogen (N) to carbon (C) ratio of about 1 to 3.

Nitrogen (N) materials include: "Stable scraps" such as horse, rabbit, goat, chicken and other manures, green grass clippings (minus any chemical fertilizers and herbicides), fish meal, bloodmeal, cottonseed meal, trimmings from grocery store produce, and garden waste, such as weeds and trimmings.

 
Produce trimmings are good sources of Nitrogen (N).

What about putting URINE in the compost pile?

Do it. According to wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, urine is sterile and contains large amounts of urea, an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Recommended dilution: 10-15 parts water to 1 part urine for application growing season. Urine is also a good source of phosphorus and potassium, and is widely considered as good as or better than commercially-available chemical fertilizers. Urine is also used in composting to increase the nitrogen content of the mulch, accelerating the composting process and increasing its final nutrient values.


Carbon (C) materials include: Straw, dried leaves, sawdust (in small amounts), wood chips (also in small amounts), and shredded newspaper, cardboard and brown bags. One of the best and easiest combinations to come by occurs in the fall. Mix 3 parts dried leaves to 1 part green grass clippings to make a compost that is light, airy and fine. Now that's gourmet!

Gourmet compost: 3 parts leaves + 1 part grass clippings.

Materials you DON'T want to add to a compost pile include: meat scraps, oily products such as salad dressings, peanut butter and mayonnaise, pet litter and food, branches and other large woody materials, slick magazine pages, and waxed cardboard.

If you live near a coastal community, kelp and seaweed is a must-have ingredient. Pound per pound, kelp supplies more minerals than any other material on the planet. In the garden, it also aerates the soil and makes an excellent mulch around potato plants, fruit-bearing shrubs, bulbs and perennials. And, contrary to popular belief, seaweed does not add harmful salts to the garden.

Kelp is what I call a "neutral" ingredient, in that it doesn't fit in the nitrogen or the carbon category. Yet, it benefits every compost pile by adding fluff. 

Step #2: Stir your compost ingredients

Once you assemble your ingredients, you're ready to build your compost pile. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Work with a minimum size of 3x3x5 feet. (If you live in a milder climate, then 3x3x3 feet is large enough). The key is to make a compost pile large enough to retain heat and prevent ingredients from drying out. Expect temperatures of 120 to 160 degrees (F), which is enough to kill most weed seeds and pests.
  • Use an enclosure, either ready-built, or one make of heavy wire screen, wood pallets, etc.
  • Coarse materials should be chopped or shredded.
  • Build the pile in layers, like a cake, alternating nitrogen and carbon materials.
  • Hose down the layers with water. The ingredients should feel like a damp sponge.


Step #3: Let your compost cook

Turn the pile every 4 to 7 days to aerate it and to provide the microorganisms with fresh food. With tumblers, simply give it a spin occasionally. For bin enclosures, use a pitchfork to turn the pile, moving the inside materials to the outside, and the outside materials to the inside--just like folding cake batter. This is a good upper body workout.

How do you know when the compost is done?

The compost pile is done cooking when it no longer warms up within a few days of turning it. Incidentally, the pile will shrink to about half of its original size.

Troubleshooting the compost pile

With a little practice, you'll be able to read the symptoms and know what to do to correct the problem. Here are some common problems and their solutions:

Problem: The compost pile doesn't get very hot, even though it has enough materials.
Possible Solution: You might need to add more nitrogen ingredients such as green grass clippings or manure to correct the nitrogen to carbon ratio. Make sure the ingredients are damp. Too dry, and they won't start cooking.

Problem: The compost heap heats up and cools down like it's supposed to, but a lot of the materials are large and not broken down.
Possible Solution: Because the materials are big and chunky, they don't provide enough surface area for the microorganisms to finish their work. Chop the materials as best you can. A Crocodile Dundee knife, or machete, works great for this.

Problem: Whew, the compost pile has a strong odor.
Possible Solution: The pile is undergoing what's called "anaerobic decomposition." Anaerobic means "without oxygen" which is why it smells like the beach at low tide. You need to add introduce oxygen back into the pile by turning it at least once a week.

Problem: Animals on the loose!
Possible Solution: If dogs, mice, rats, cats or raccoons are getting into to your compost pile, fence it in, cover it with wire and avoid adding meat scraps, bones, and fish waste to the pile.

How to use compost

  • Apply a 4 to 6-inch layer of compost-mulch around woody perennials in the Autumn to reduce damage from winter winds.
  • After the soil has warmed up in the spring, apply compost around warm season vegetable crops such as zucchini and tomatoes.
  • Spread compost on the garden a couple weeks before spring tilling.
  • Add compost to container gardens, hanging baskets
  • During the growing season, side-dress your plants with compost to provide a slow-release source of nutrients.
  • Make compost tea. Add a shovelful of compost to a 5-gallon bucket of water and allowing it to steep for a few days. For larger quantities, add compost to a 55-gallon drum. Use the nutrient-rich tea to fertilize lawns, shrubs, perennials, containers, hanging baskets, as well as annual vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Dilute the tea for younger plants.

compost tea
Adding compost tea to raised beds.

  • Apply a 1 to 2-inch thick mulch around flowers, trees and shrubs in the spring to maintain soil moisture and discourage weed growth.
  • Use compost as a growing medium for seedlings and potted plants. After screening out large particles, you'll need to pasteurize it before using it.

 

Adapted version of an article written by Marion Owen www.plantea.com

 
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