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Building and maintaining a compost pile is the surest, easiest way to become a better gardener. Not only will you be producing the best possible food for your garden, but by watching leaves, eggshells, orange rinds, and grass clippings become transformed into rich compost filled with earthworms and other soil creatures, you'll be learning what healthy soil is all about.
Most gardeners don't start with great soil. Whether yours is hard and compacted, sandy, stony, heavy, or wet, adding compost will improve its texture, water-holding capacity, and fertility. Your soil will gradually become fluffy and brown—the ideal home for healthy plants.
Even if you are lucky enough to have great soil, you can't expect that soil to remain rich and productive without replenishing the nutrients that are consumed each growing season. No commercial fertilizer, even one that is totally organic, provides the full spectrum of nutrients that you get with compost. The nutrients are available gradually, as your plants need them, over a period of months or years. The microorganisms in the compost will also help your plants absorb nutrients from fertilizers more efficiently.
Compost is teeming with all kinds of microorganisms and soil fauna that help convert soil nutrients into a form that can be readily absorbed by your plants. The microorganisms, enzymes, vitamins and natural antibiotics that are present in compost actually help prevent many soil pathogens from harming your plants. Earthworms, millipedes, and other macro-organisms tunnel through your soil, opening up passageways for air and water to reach your plants' roots.
Even very experienced gardeners often have soil that is less than perfect. Adding compost moderates pH and fertility problems, so you can concentrate on the pleasures of gardening, not the science of your soil’s chemical composition. Unlike organic or inorganic fertilizers, which need to be applied at the right time and in the right amount, compost can be applied at any time and in any amount. You can't really over-apply it. Plants use exactly what they need, when they need it.
Can a gardener ever have enough compost? It's doubtful. Compost is the perfect thing to spread around when you are creating a new garden, seeding a new lawn area, or planting a new tree. Compost can be sprinkled around plants during the growing season or used as a mulch in your perennial gardens. You can add compost to your flower boxes and deck planters. You can also use it to enrich the potting soil for your indoor plants.
Show all your gardens some love by treating them to regular doses of compost. In spring, compost gets plants off to a strong start. In fall, even as air temperatures drop, the soil stays warm so the compost feeds the still-active beneficial organisms.
In the vegetable garden. Amend soil each spring with a layer of compost. You can gently mix it into the top few inches of soil, or mulch around individual plants or rows. In fall, as you remove spent crops, loosen soil and mix in a 3" to 4" deep layer of compost. Then cover bare soil with shredded leaves or straw. The soil will be refreshed for spring planting.
Pamper perennials. As you tidy up perennial gardens — in spring, fall, or anytime in between — keep a bucket of
compost at hand so you can spread a 1" layer around the base of each plant, keeping the compost a few inches from the stems to prevent rot.
Nurture shrubs and trees. Don't take 'em for granted — they're your biggest landscape investment! In spring and fall, spread a 3" layer of compost in a wide band extending well beyond the edge of the canopy. Keep the compost 6" inches away from stems and trunks to prevent rot.
Give bulbs a boost. Mix in a few handfuls of compost into each bulb planting hole, or prepare an entire bed by mixing in a generous layer of compost before planting.
Lawns are plants, too! Apply a 1/2" layer of compost over your entire lawn each spring and fall. If soil is compacted, rent an aerator first to open up the soil so water will wash the compost down to the grass roots.
Organic matter is transformed into compost through the work of microorganisms, soil fauna, enzymes and fungi. When making compost, your job is to provide the best possible environment for these beneficial organisms to do their work. If you do so, the decomposition process works very rapidly—sometimes in as little as two weeks. If you don't provide the optimum environment, decomposition will still happen, but it may take from several months to several years.
The trick to making an abundance of compost in a short time is to balance the following four things:
Microorganisms and other soil fauna work most efficiently when the ratio of carbon-rich to nitrogen-rich materials in your compost pile is approximately 25:1 (brown to green) but most people find three parts brown and one part green works quite well. In practical terms, if you want to have an active compost pile, you should include lots of high-carbon "brown" materials (such as straw, wood chips, or dry leaves) and a lesser amount of high-nitrogen "green" materials (such as grass clippings, freshly pulled weeds, or kitchen scraps).
If you have an excess of carbon-rich materials and not enough nitrogen-rich materials, your pile may take years to decompose (there is not enough protein for those microbes!). If your pile has too much nitrogen and not enough carbon, your pile will also decompose very slowly (not enough for the microbes to eat!), and it will probably be soggy and smelly along the way.
But don't worry about determining the exact carbon content of a material or achieving a precise 25:1 ratio. Composting doesn't need to be a competitive, goal-oriented task. All organic matter breaks down eventually, no matter what you do. If you simply use about 3 times as much "brown" materials as "green" materials, you'll be off to a great start. Take a look at the sample recipes and check the chart of common compost materials. With experience, you'll get a sense for what works best.
Spread the ingredients in 3-inch-deep layers to a height of 3 to 4 feet.
Spread ingredients in 4-inch layers, adding water if needed.
The following materials can be sprinkled onto your compost pile as you build each layer. They will add important nutrients and will help speed up the composting process:
Heat is a by-product of intense microbial activity. It indicates that the microorganisms are munching on organic matter and converting it into finished compost. The temperature of your compost pile does not in itself affect the speed or efficiency of the decomposition process. But temperature does determine what types of microbes are active.
There are primarily three types of microbes that work to digest the materials in a compost pile. They each work best in a particular temperature range:
The psychrophiles work in cool temperatures—even as low as 28 degrees F. As they begin to digest some of the carbon-rich materials, they give off heat, which causes the temperature in the pile to rise. When the pile warms to 60 to 70 degrees F, mesophilic bacteria take over. They are responsible for the majority of the decomposition work. If the mesophiles have enough carbon, nitrogen, air, and water, they work so hard that they raise the temperature in the pile to about 100 degrees F. At this point, thermophilic bacteria kick in. It is these bacteria that can raise the temperature high enough to sterilize the compost and kill disease-causing organisms and weed seeds. Three to five days of 155 degrees F. is enough for the thermophiles to do their best work.
Getting your compost pile "hot" (140 to 160 degrees F.) is not critical, but it does mean that your compost will be finished and usable within a month or so. These high temperatures also kill most weed seeds, as well as harmful pathogens that can cause disease problems. Most people don't bother charting the temperature curve in their compost pile. They just try to get a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen, keep the pile moist and well aerated, and wait until everything looks pretty well broken down.
Commercial activators can help raise the temperature in your compost pile by providing a concentrated dose of microorganisms and protein. Other effective activators that can help to get your pile cooking include humus-rich soil, rotted manure, finished compost, dried blood, and alfalfa meal.
Unless speed is a priority, frequent turning is not necessary. Many people never turn their compost piles. The purpose of turning is to increase oxygen flow for the microorganisms, and to blend undecomposed materials into the center of the pile. If you are managing a hot pile, you'll probably want to turn your compost every 3 to 5 days, or when the interior temperature dips below about 110 degrees F. Monitor the temperature with a compost thermometer; use garden shovel, fork or a compost aerator to help turn the pile.
After turning, the pile should heat up again, as long as there is still undecomposed material to be broken down. When the temperature stays pretty constant no matter how much you turn the pile, your compost is probably ready. Though turning can speed the composting process, it also releases heat into the air, so you should turn your pile less frequently in cold weather.
There are several ways to help keep your pile well-aerated, without the hassle of turning:
Last updated: 4/26/20
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