Maintaining rich and active soil is the most important thing you can do towards creating a self-sustaining organic garden. Adding organic matter to your soil helps to keep your garden full of nutrients, aerates the soil, and helps to prevent disease and pests. And, best of all, it doesn’t cost a cent.
What is Compost?
Compost is nature’s fertilizer. Made of decomposed leaves, plant matter, and bark, compost is what keeps the forest green and healthy without any interference from man. In nature, a felled tree and falling leaves will eventually decay and be processed by thousands of organisms yielding a dark, rich, earthy humus, that keeps the forest healthy and thriving. Composting is replicating that natural process.
Why Use Compost?
Organic gardeners can take a hint from nature and create their own fertilizer and soil enrichment. Filled with microscopic organisms, compost keeps the soil alive, aerated, and always on the move. Compost is what remains after these organisms break down organic materials. The soil nutrients, Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are all by-products of compost. Compost, like mulch, also helps to keep the ground moist and at an even temperature.
Compost is also good for the environment. It is estimated that thirty percent of the waste in America’s landfills is organic. Landfills are brimming with garbage and new sites are not readily found. Many communities are even refusing to pick up grass clippings and leaves. Don’t contribute to the problem. Use your garden waste to improve your landscape.
A gardener with any size plot can create compost for his own use. No two compost recipes are alike. It depends on what you have available. Leaves, bark, grass clipping, and deadheaded flowers are a start. Add to that organic kitchen waste, such as coffee grounds, eggshells, and carrot peelings
The ideal compost pile requires a delicate balance of “browns,” carbon-rich materials, and “greens,” nitrogen-rich materials. Brown materials include dried leaves, wood chips, and straw. Green materials include grass clippings and kitchen scraps. The ideal mix is approximately 25 parts browns to one part greens.
Leaves will make up a large portion of your compost pile. Avoid black walnut leaves or bark as well as poison ivy and oak as they are toxic to other plants. Avoid, too, shiny, leathery leaves, such as those from holly, magnolia, and eucalyptus plants, as they decompose too slowly. Pine needles need to be chopped or shredded, as they too decompose rather slowly.
You can compost most plant-based kitchen scraps. Avoid meat and dairy products as they will attract rodents and other pests, like maggots. Crush your eggshells to allow them to decompose more quickly. Some gardeners keep a small plastic or ceramic container in the kitchen to make it easy to accumulate scraps. Make sure that the container has a tight-fitting lid. Cover each addition to the compost pile of kitchen material with about 8″ of brown material in order to keep flies away. Newspapers and cut-up cardboard boxes can also be added.
Use all of your discarded plant material in your compost pile. Deadheaded flowers, dead plants, and thinned seedlings are all ideal choices. Avoid weeds as they may leave seeds in the compost. Also keep any diseased plants out of the compost pile. If you live by the shore, seaweed is an excellent addition.
Choose a site away from your house for the compost pile. Look for a well-drained area. In cooler climates, place the compost pile in a sunny spot so as to trap solar heat. Ideally, build the pile over soil or lawn to take advantage of earthworms and other microbes found in the soil. Spring makes an ideal time to start a compost pile as you clean up the garden from winter. All those soggy leaves can go right back into the soil.
How to Maintain Your Compost Pile
How active you are in cultivating your compost is up to you. Eventually organic matter will break down on its own. There are, however, a few things you can do to speed up the process. Left to its own devices, a simple compost pile will produce a few cubic feet of compost in one year or so.
Managing your compost pile can give you finished compost in three to four weeks. Shredding helps the matter decompose more quickly. Turning your pile frequently, one a week or so, also helps. Add new materials frequently and maintain a warm or hot temperature. Cold temperatures slow down the microbiotic activity. In the winter, add more nitrogen-rich materials, such as grass clippings or kitchen waste, to boost the pile’s temperature.
Moisture is also important. If the pile becomes too dry, the decaying process will slow down or even halt. Add water as you are building your compost pile. When you turn the pile, use that opportunity to add a little more water. You are aiming at a moist pile, not a wet one. Too much water can displace the air and hamper the decomposition process.
Products to Make it Easier
Does this all sound like too much of a science project for you? You’re a city gardener, after all. You don’t have that kind of time to devote to garbage. Don’t despair. There are several excellent products on the market to help make composting much easier. First among these is the compost tumbler. This black plastic drum has a built in handle to make turning the pile easy. Just crank it a couple of times a day. Also, the black color absorbs the sun’s heat and helps to keep an optimum temperature. These are available in all kinds. A small one will cost about $50.
Holding units are also available in all sizes and provide an attractive and convenient way to store leaves and other garden waste before you put it into the compost pile.
Composting is essential to organic gardening. Once you get started, it’s easy to maintain. Take that first step. Not only are you giving your garden the best treat that money can’t buy, you are helping to recycle your garbage and create a better environment.