Healthy soil is the key to a great garden. As young plants break out of their seeds, they dig their roots deep into the ground looking for nutrients. That’s where composting comes in. Composting is a cheap, easy and versatile way to nourish your soil without harsh chemical fertilizers.
So, what is it?
Composting simply involves storing organic waste products and waiting for them to break down for garden use. Often called “black gold” by farmers and gardeners alike, produce clippings, yard waste and a wide variety of ingredients decompose and transform into a rich fertilizer resembling garden soil through composting.
Composting keeps chemicals out of your garden by providing a natural source of nutrients to your soil. The healthier the soil, the more effectively it retains water. Putting your waste to work not only helps your garden, but it also helps protect the environment by keeping excess trash out of landfills and waterways.
What can you compost?
A healthy compost pile can include a wide variety of organic matter: shredded paper and newspaper, coffee grounds and tea bags, grains, eggshells, grass clippings, hair and fur, sawdust from untreated wood, straw, wood ash, cardboard, vegetable and fruit trimmings and leaves. It is recommended that a compost pile not include meat, fat or dairy, as they might attract pests. Because they can create an unpleasant odor, onions and garlic should also be avoided, as well as pet waste and plants or weeds treated with pesticides.
There are a variety of ways to get started with composting. One easy step is keeping an airtight canister in your kitchen. As you peel potatoes or chop the tops off other veggies, toss them into the canister instead of the trash. Once a week, empty the canister into your backyard compost pile.
Your backyard compost pile is customizable to your needs. If pesky animals are a problem, take a large plastic garbage can with a lid and drill holes all over to allow for air flow. Open it only to stir or dump your kitchen canister.
Ideally, you want a mix of greens for nitrogen (including grass clippings, produce scraps and coffee grounds) and browns for carbon (dead leaves, twigs, paper). The best ratio for the pile is two parts brown to one part green with the moisture content comparable to a damp sponge. Even if you don’t follow these measurements, your compost will eventually break down — it will just take a little longer.
After adding your browns and greens, use a pitchfork to turn your compost pile. Many garden stores sell tumbler-style compost bins that can be turned to mix. These also help maintain the moisture and heat needed for composting.
Another option for composting is vermicomposting, or worm composting. This can be done indoors or outdoors in mild temperatures, so try to avoid a metal bin because it can get too hot or too cold. Red wigglers, a species of worm recommended for vermicomposting, live in a multilevel bin elevated from the ground.The worms will enjoy their feast before moving up to the next level within the bin, leaving behind a supply of nutrient-rich, odorless worm castings that can be used in the garden. With the exception of citrus, citrus peel, and the same restrictions of meat, fat and dairy products, no composting ingredients are off-limits with this method. Ideally the compostable matter should be broken down into smaller pieces to make it easier for the worms to digest.
Ready for the earth
When compost is ready, it will look like smooth, dark garden soil. You should not be able to see any recognizable items in the final product. The odor should be earthy, not sour, and when complete, the pile will be about one-third of its original size. If any of these factors are missing, it means the compost pile needs more time to break down. During warmer months, a compost pile can be ready for use in just a few months. If you live in a colder climate, compost may take a year to break down.
If you notice your pile is slimy or has an odor, it means more browns need to be added. If your pile is in a sunny spot, you might need to add water to maintain the necessary moisture level.
Next time, think twice before ditching your kitchen scraps, and instead, use them to reap the benefits of the gardener’s black gold.