What is composting?
It’s an inexpensive way to add nutrients to your garden, while keeping your household trash at a minimum.
Anyone who has been reading the papers, watching TV or hasn’t had their head buried in the sand have heard about compost. And do you know what? People used to compost when composting wasn’t “cool”.
The main reason a gardener should consider building a compost bin is to create better soil for the plants.
There’s the traditional pile hidden out of site close to the traditional garden that most people think about when they hear the words compost pile.
Types of Composting Methods
There are also other alternatives available for those of you who garden on a smaller scale, such as an apartment or urban setting. In this post I’m going to talk a bit about your options, and you can decide which best suits your situation.
- Traditional pile. I have had a traditional compost pile over the years, with some hard lessons learned to go with it. For starters it’s a bad thing to let it dry out too much, or the ants move right in. Something else I learned was snakes like to hang out on them when it’s hot. Ants I can handle. Snakes not so much.
- Commercially designed composter for smaller yards. This one has a lid with a door (to add the materials in without disturbing the pile) and a door at the bottom for scooping out the finished compost. It’s a great concept, but don’t let the advertisements fool you into thinking you’ll have compost within a few weeks. Trust me; that doesn’t happen. It takes time, perseverance and a lot of patience.
- Worm bin. Now this is something I haven’t tried yet, but it is on my list. When my kids were in grade school one of the teachers had worm bins in his classroom. He used them as an educational tool plus he was rewarded with vermicompost for the plants he also had in his classroom. While picking up my son from school one day the topic of the worm bins came up so Mr. H showed me what he used, how he added the bedding, and the best things to feed the worms. It was an educational visit for me as well.
Materials: Good and Bad
Now when it comes to composting, you can’t just throw anything and everything in it. Some items are a no-no, while others must be added in moderation.
First, we’ll go with the no-no’s:
- Dairy products
Next, we’ll talk about the rest:
- Eggshells – these do best if they’re rinsed and crushed. It takes a lot longer for a large piece of eggshell to break down than a small one.
- Citrusy pulp and peels – these are okay for a large pile or bin in moderation, but do not add them to your worm bin.
- Vegetable/fruit scraps, leaves and stems – the smaller the pieces the quicker they’ll break down, and the quicker they break down the sooner you’ll have a healthy addition to your soil.
- Grass clippings and pulled weeds – these are considered “green matter” which should not be dumped into the pile all at once. If too much green is put in it will become compact and the air will not circulate. You will most likely be left with a stinky, sludgy mess.
- Straw, pine straw, fallen leaves and wood chips (just not from treated wood) – these are considered “brown matter” and aid in providing air circulation and balance. If you’re going to add green matter, be sure to add an equal amount of brown matter.
- Coffee grounds, shredded paper, natural fibers and small twigs and branches may also be added. Bear in mind the size so the contents break down at relatively the same speed.
- Animal manure – chickens, rabbits, alpacas, sheep, goats, llamas, cows and horses all provide ideal manure for your compost pile. I do advise against adding too much at once, especially cow manure. Some manures are better left for the fields.
You’ll need to monitor the amount of moisture in your pile because you don’t want it so wet it’s soggy, nor do you want it so dry other creatures decide to make it their home. Introducing some earthworms into your pile will help you get a feel for how much moisture it needs. If the worms are at the top, it’s much too wet. If they’re non-existent it’s too dry. Finding worms several inches down is ideal.
It will take several weeks for a pile to break down and become a viable soil additive. To speed up the process you can turn the compost with a fork (if you have a traditional pile) or roll your container to mix the contents. The latter is ideal for small space gardening. (Watch for an article on how to make your own mini compost tumbler.)
It will take some trial and error to get your mix just right. Any problems can generally be fixed with the addition of water or brown/green matter. I have a pile out in my garden that I’m anxious to get into when spring gets here, provided I got the mix right. Winter can be a forgiving season when it comes to compost though, and I may just have the ideal mix when I dig into it.
If you’re a seasoned composter, which technique do you use the most? Post your reply in the comments section.
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