Friday, May 3, 2013

The Dirt on Backyard Composting

With the recent passing of Earth Day, celebrated every April since 1970, now is the perfect time get literal about earth – the kind in your garden – and enrich it by composting.


Composting


Why compost?


Composting is good for the Earth, good for your piece of the earth, and good for your garden – which is good for you!

Ecologically speaking, consider the alternatives:
  • When you throw yard waste away with your trash it goes to a landfill where it takes up space and produces methane gas, which contributes to climate change.
  • Backyard burning of your leaves and trimmings creates air pollution.
But with composting, enriching your soil is exactly what you’ll be doing.  Your garden will be noticeably healthier when you add good compost to the soil.

Beyond the good that you see, your grown foods will be much richer with nutritional value, since many fruits and vegetables are like sponges, greedily grabbing up all the nutritional value they can from your soil.  So, load up that dirt with nutrient-rich compost!


What is composting? 


In short, backyard composting is creating your own super-rich garden fertilizer.  How composting works:  By combining food scraps from your table, yard trimmings/rakings, water, sun, aeration, and a little time for it all to decompose, you end up with dirt – seriously good, nutrient packed fertilizer. The kind your garden or lawn will love since it will help condition the soil and replenish nutrients. 


Composting: How to get started


First word of advice – learn the composting basics – that’s all – and then just do it.  Just get started.  There are books upon books written on the subject of composting.  As helpful as they may be, the basics are really simple enough that you can succeed with little more than what you read right here.  Besides, the “ideal” composting methods the books teach are often overwhelming, sometimes even conflicting, and occasionally recommending expensive equipment that, frankly, is not necessary. 

So, learn the basics, and get started.  A compost pile is truly a simple thing: a combination of food scraps and yard scraps that, with a bit of moisture, air, and sunshine, will transform in a few weeks into the richest collection of fertilizer your garden will ever need. 

Recycling vegetables for compostComposting is also known as “controlled decomposition.” It’s about encouraging organic materials to decompose.  The recipe for your composting pile begins with a mix of:
  • “Green” organic materials that contain large amounts of nitrogen, such as grass clippings, food scraps, and manure.
  • “Brown” organic materials that naturally contain large amounts of carbon but little nitrogen, such as dry leaves, wood chips, and branches.
You mix these commonly available materials to form a pile in your backyard.  With experience, experimentation, and patience, you’ll figure out the optimum nutrient mix to get the results you want. 
Beyond the core ingredients, you also need:
  • Moisture. Microorganisms will naturally make themselves at home in the green/brown mixture.  This is good, aiding the decomposition, so encourage it with moisture.  They need moisture to survive and thrive. Watering your compost pile is all it takes.  The water also transports substances within the compost pile, making the nutrients in the organic material accessible to the microbes.
  • Air flow.  Left alone, the conversion of organic material to compost in your pile can take up to two years, but when you manually turn your composting pile with a shovel or rake, this aerating action dramatically hastens the process to three-to-six months.  You can also aerate your pile by adding “bulking” agents to your compost pile, such as wood chips and shredded newspaper. 
How do I know if the compost pile is working?
Look for heat.  When decomposition is happening, the activity of the microbes will raise the temperature of your pile’s core to at least 140° F.   The microorganisms need these warmer temperatures for the most rapid composting, and to destroy pathogens and weed seeds that may be in your compost pile.  Without the temperature increase, you may get rotting. Keeping the aeration, moisture and green/brown balance will usually be enough to encourage the proper temperature.

You’ll also know your compost pile is converting into fertilizer simply by looking at it.  The less it looks like food scraps and leaves – and the more it looks like dirt – the closer you are to calling it garden-ready fertilizer. 
Organic compost


Composting tips to boost success


A little composting advice:
  • Keep particle size small. Smaller pieces add surface area.  This helps microbes feed on them.  Grinding, chipping, and shredding the materials you add to your pile speeds up the process.  But don’t get carried away – if the particles are too small, they restrict aeration.
  • Grasscycle instead. If your goal is only to reduce your garbage output, rather than creating garden compost, try “grasscycling” – leaving your grass clippings on the lawn to decompose naturally and return nutrients to the soil.
  • Adjust for weather – if you’ve got heavy rains, reduce or stop adding water to your compost pile – it will get enough.  You can also adjust your watering plans based on the air temperature – higher temperatures will increase evaporation. HINT: If your pile is drying out too fast or too often, you may be over-aerating – giving it too much oxygen.  As this impedes the composting process, you’ll want to reduce the frequency of pile turning.
  • Get grinds. For an easy way to go to town on enriching your compost pile, go to town for real – like to your nearest coffee house.  Starbucks and other coffee houses often save their coffee grinds in big bags, giving the grinds free to gardeners who ask.  Coffee grinds are rich in nitrogen. Read more on coffee grinds and composting here and here.
  • Look for local help and info.  Local communities might hold composting demonstrations and seminars to encourage homeowners or businesses to compost on their own properties.
Final thoughts and more backyard composting information:
Do you have backyard composting advice? Questions?  Share with us using the comments. 

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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