Composting 101...

Ahhh...the smell of compost is a smell that I cannot describe.  Earthy, dense, full of life...compost is amazing stuff and if you have the capacity to do it, I highly recommend it.  It is immensely satisfying to be able to turn waste and junk into something that is completely life giving.  I have to admit that I have a slight advantage over the every day gardener when it comes to compost, I have a horse, goat, rabbits and chickens that all produce waste that makes amazing compost.  However, it is easy and very possible to achieve compost without the help of barnyard friends.

Composting is a valuable part of gardening.  It puts beneficial microorganisms back into the ground.  Microorganisms are beneficial to creating a balance of good bacteria in the ground to help plants grow and fend off diseases.  Composting is also a great organic way to sustain the soil.  Often as we grow food and plants, our nutritional demands for the plants we grow outweigh what we return to the soil.  For continued nutrient enriched soil without the use of chemicals and synthetic ingredients, compost becomes a key player for sustainability in the vegetable garden.

The first thing that you need to do when beginning to compost is to realize that much of what you toss in the garbage pail is compostable.  Newspaper, vegetable scraps, coffee filters, tea bags, there are oodles of things that we toss every day that can make a valuable contribution to your garden if given time, water, light, and aeration.

The beginning concepts regarding composting involve identifying green and brown materials.  Green materials are high in nitrogen.  Grass clippings, green plant material, green leaves, vegetable scraps, horse and goat manure are all green materials.  Brown material is usually brown: dead and decomposing leaves and plant materials, paper, straw, coffee filters are all brown material.  It is important that you have a balance of green and brown material, and you can usually tell when the balance is off just by the smell of your pile.  A smell like urea means that you are lacking in green material, and a smell like rotten sludge (if you smelled it, you would know exactly what I am saying) means that you are needing to add some brown material to the pile.  This ratio is often referred to as the Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio or C:N ratio.  (Carbon is the brown material and nitrogen is the green material.)  There should be a C:N ratio of between 20:1 and 40:1.  The ratio thing scared me at first and I was a little terrified thinking that I wouldn't be able to achieve the proper ratio, but with a little time and lots of gathering of compostable items, I was able to make my first compost pile.

Things to not add to your compost pile include: meat, bones, dairy, anything derived from animal products, manure from meat eating animals (dogs and cats), large branches, plastic or synthetic items.  Another thought is that the smaller the things are that you put in the pile, the faster they will decompose because there is greater surface area for the microorganisms to munch on.  Large, thick items (like broccoli stems and corn cobs) will take a long time to break down unless you chop them up.

You can make a pile and have the right ratio, but without oxygen, light, and water, you will just have a pile.  You have to turn the pile!  A pitchfork is my favorite tool for turning, it makes things so easy.  By turning the pile, you are aerating it, or letting oxygen in.  The microorganisms need oxygen in order to break down all of the abundant food that you gave them.  Also, oxygen causes heat to be produced.  Heat is another factor in breaking down the pile.  The temperature should reach somewhere between 120-140ºF and should be maintained in the pile for at least a week.  The high temperatures kill unwanted seeds and bad bacteria and speeds up the rate of decomposition.  I often cover our piles with plastic to help trap heat.  Anchored with some metal stakes, it is easy to pull off the plastic and turn the pile, then replace the plastic.  A good soaking with water gives the moisture that is needed for the microorganisms to survive.  If your pile is dry, it will have a difficult time heating up, and will break down much slower.  If I start in the spring, I often have several piles that I can use throughout the summer on the farm.  I use our compost in the spring when I plant, spreading a layer of manure in the root zones of the plants to give an added boost of nutrients.  I also spread it over areas that were heavily depleted the prior year, such as the corn and pumpkin patches.

Compost is the ultimate recycling!  If you can have a small pile or a tumbler placed in your backyard, you will reap the benefits of your efforts.  It is something that helps us give back to the Earth and supports responsible and sustainable gardening.  I am giving some links to fact sheets from the USU extension that are a little more detailed and a great resource.  Also, Organic Gardening has some great information on compositing and I will include a link to their resources as well.  Get saving your scraps and do something great for your soil!

USU Extension Fact Sheet Composting
USU Extension Fact Sheet The Composting Process
USU Extension Fact Sheet Backyard Composting
Organic Gardening Composting For Beginners
Organic Gardening Composting 


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