Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Low Down on Compost

Over the past several years there has been a growing interest in composting. Compost can produce a good organic fertilize for your plants. As well as reduce our dependence on chemical companies for fertilize and soil treatments, it will greatly improve the soil over time so that plants are less susceptible to disease and even common plant pests. Composting can and should be easy.

Just like everything else when there is a growing interest in a subject a lot of people try to find a way to make money off of people who are just getting started. There is every kind of compost bin, tumbler, and there is even a bio booster "designed" to speed up the composting progress. The truth is you can spend as little or as much as you want and be as basic or as fancy as you want. In fact, when I first started composting I just used a pile. Guess what? I ended up with  rich dark compost. All I did was add kitchen scraps when I had them and a shovel full of composted manure that I got from a neighbor. So if I could do that anyone can.

What You Can Compost:

Really you can compost ALL of your kitchen scraps except meat related scraps. The reasons you do not want to use meat byproducts are several; 1) meat byproducts smell 2) meat byproducts tend to attract unwanted insects 3) and they can induce disease into your food source. Everything else in the form of kitchen scraps are good to go.

You can compost a lot of the things that we throw out in the trash. Newspaper pages, not the glossy ads, shredded, paper bags, the kids old homework, old cotton clothing torn into shreds, even human and pet hair. All of these things can be included in your compost. These things add what compost geeks (hey I am one so don't judge) call brown ingredients.

Other things that can be composted include grass clippings, garden  byproducts (corn stalks or old plants) leaves, and herbivore manure. No carnivore or human manure should be included. These manures can be composted, but must be composted in a different manner to ensure that cross contamination. We have greatly reduced the amount of things that we put out with the garbage by composting. Simply put, composting can slow the growth of land fills.

Compost Method:

Compost Tumbler

The tumbler is the quickest method of producing compost. You have to mix browns (carbon heavy items)and greens (high nitrogen). Browns would be dry leaves, egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, or wood chips. Green items include things like grass clippings, left over lettuce, onion cuttings, and herbivore manures. These should be mixed half and half then watered to the point that the bulk is thoroughly damp, but not soaked. You will also want to add a shovel full of completed compost or compost starter. Once all of this is done, you will need to turn the tumbler a minimum of 3 times per week and if possible everyday. The tumbler is perfect for small areas. They can be made in something as small as a 5 gallon bucket. The output would be adequate for a small raised bed or several containers used for garden plants.

Compost Bin

Next step up in production is a compost bin. This will produce more than all but the largest compost tumblers, but the time from start to completion is increased as well as the amount of labor. In a compost bin it is more important to properly mix or layer the different types of ingredients. Remember the two types of ingredients are greens and browns. These terms have little to do with the color of the ingredients, manure looks more brown, but is a true green. The greens are items that are rich in nitrogen and the browns are primarily carbon. I would suggest if you are going to use bins have at least two. You will want to turn the bin about every three days for quickest results. You will still want to add a couple shovels full of either completed compost or rich soil to get the process started. During dry times of the year your bin will need to be watered. You want the bin to be moist not wet.

Compost Pile

The largest method we will cover is a compost pile. In order to achieve optimal temperatures in the center of the pile one would want the pile to be at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide at the base with the same mixture of browns, greens, and rich soil or compost. Ideally these ingredients should be accumulated all at once and be turned or the pile moved from one place to another every 3 days. Moving the pile increases airflow in the pile and keeps it "cooking". These piles have been known to produce enough heat to keep a greenhouse warm enough to prevent delicate plants from getting too cold. All of the same rules apply to the pile as did the bin as concerning moisture. The only difference is a matter of scale.


The last method we will discuss is the method I use. Worm compost or vermiculture. This can be done either directly on the ground or as a raised worm bed. I place mine directly on the ground. Do I lose some of the worms by them going down into the ground? Yes. Do I really care? No. Why? Because they are working the ground for me. Improving both the soils fertility and the aeration. I also move my vermiculture bed around my garden. This softens the ground where ever it has been placed. I add kitchen scraps nearly daily. I add all the new materials to one side. When I want to harvest some compost, I change the side I am placing the new items on. As the food (new items) are used up the worms migrate to the new food side. After a day or two I remove the compost from the old side collect the worms that are in the compost and either put them back into the system or go fishing. I still occasionally mix the pile, but it is not as labor intensive as the other methods. For me this is the best option.

Tools for composting:

If you choose the bin or pile methods you will need a compost fork. I do not advise trying to turn a compost pile with a shovel. You will work yourself a lot harder than need be. You will also need a source of water.Lastly, you will need time.

Now that I told you all of this, if you do not wish to manage your compost, just pile it up and wait. Nature has been doing this ever since it was set in motion. It will take a LOT longer without management, but it will still work. Compost can and should be another step toward getting chemicals out of our food.

Working toward a traditional Rural Lifestyle.

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