Feeding the Earth
Farmer Jon's BackYard Compost Primer
by Jon Traunfeld
This preacher of the gospel of composting wants to convert you ...
Q Why should I convert to composting?
A In preaching the gospel of composting, I use every argument in the book. Composting helps divert usable material from the waste stream. It can improve your soil. It will save you money. You'll have a clearer conscience. But the most compelling reasons to start composting is that I can think of no better way to teach children about life forces or instill a conservation ethic.
Q If I'm considering converting, how do I get started?
A Start with common and plentiful ingredients like grass clippings, leaves, straw, farmyard manure, sawdust, shredded newspaper, spent plants and kitchen scraps. Gather them in a pile.
But leave out herbicide-treated lawn clippings, noxious weeds or those with seed heads, plants infested with insects or disease, bones, fat, oils, cooked foods and pet manure.
Q Where do I put my good compost starters?
A You can start by using shredded leaves to cover bare soil or to mulch perennials. Or leaving grass clippings to rot on top of the lawn. Or burying kitchen scraps directly in garden beds. Or chopping spent plants right into the soil.
Or you can make a compost pile.
Q Where should the pile go?
A You're the best judge of that. Choose a well-drained location in a convenient spot that won't create problems for your neighbors. Compost piles do fine in full shade or sun and everywhere in between. But don't locate your pile under a tree or next to a wooden structure.
Q Don't I need a bin?
A Absolutely not. If you prefer a bin, you can make one or buy one. It should be at least one cubic yard (three feet by three feet by three feet) in volume. Four pallets lashed together make a fine, no-cost bin.
Q Bin or pile, should I cover it?
A A cover is helpful in preventing heavy rains from driving out oxygen and leaching out nutrients.
A No, no and no. Lots of composting myths abound. There is no one best recipe of ingredients, and mixing this with that works much better than layering. Bioactivator is a waste of money because these microbes are added free of charge on everything that goes in the pile.
The best "starter" is finished compost. It's full of microbes and provides some nitrogen as well. Finished compost has a pH of 7.0 to 7.2, which is neutral. So fears of acidifying soil with compost made from oak leaves is rubbish.
You don't need soil, either. It can make a pile go cold and dead.
Q So how does composting work?
A Compost is a mixture of living and dead and decaying plants and animals. Our existence on this planet depends directly on this process of growth, decay and regeneration. Through active composting, we merely accelerate the process for our benefit and convenience.
This wonderful system is driven by microbes, especially fungi and bacteria, that eat organic matter and transform it into a fluffy, dark, good-smelling substance. Microbes abound on plant, root and soil surfaces: an average gram of soil may contain five billion microbes.
To better understand how composting works, put yourself in the shoes of a microbe. Microbes need food, air and water. Attend to microbes' needs, and you'll be a happy composter.
Q So what should I feed those hungry little microbes?
A Microbes need raw materials that are high in carbon as a feed stock. They get that from leaves, straw, sawdust and spent plants. They also need materials high in nitrogen - farm manure, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, finished compost - to build proteins for their little bodies.
For best results, try to feed your microbes equal parts of those two types of materials. High carbon materials are often brown and dry; high nitrogen materials are green and wet. Remember also that shredded materials are digested faster because more surface area is under microbe attack.
Q How should I add air and water?
A Ingredients to be composted should always be moist, never dry or waterlogged. Just as important is oxygen. A pile that runs out of oxygen will run out of steam. This is one reason why turning a pile will cause it to heat up again and break down more quickly. The heat is simply a by-product of the microbial feeding frenzy.
Q So a good compost pile is hot. Is it smelly?
A It doesn't need to be. Bad odors develop from large, soggy piles that lack oxygen. If this happens to you, simply tear the pile apart and rebuild it on a site with better drainage using additional dry materials. Avoid this problem by using a mixture of green and brown materials and turning the pile. You can also use a little lime to filter bad odors. But don't use much. Lime can drive off nitrogen.
Q How long does it take?
A That all depends on pile size, ingredients, time of year and diligence. Hot and fast piles can be constructed by thoroughly mixing one cubic yard of stockpiled ingredients, keeping it moist and turning it after it has heated up and begun to recool. By turning a second time seven to 10 days later, you can indeed, make compost in 21 days.
Adding materials to a bin when they become available without turning the pile will yield the same result six to 12 months later.
Q How can I tell when my compost is finished?
A Compost is "done" when it is dark brown, fairly homogeneous and feels like rich, crumbly soil.
Q How should I use my finished compost?
A Compost is an excellent soil amendment, providing a wide range of plant nutrients slowly over the season while improving soil structure. It can be used as a potting medium, lawn top-dressing or mulch. It's an excellent substitute for peat moss and other store-bought amendments.
Q One last thing. Is composting legal?
A Yes, despite what some crusty neighbors might think. Some jurisdictions do frown on the above-ground composting of kitchen scraps. If you're worried, check with your county recycling office or community association.
Jon Traunfeld works for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service as a gardening and compost advisor. He and other advisors are waiting by their phones to give you advice. Call 8am-1pm, Mondays to Fridays: 800/342-2507.
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VolumeVI Number 16
April 23-29, 1998
New Bay Times
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