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Saturday, June 24, 2017

How to Compost the Easy Way

Posted by admin on October 2, 2010

Composting is one of the best and easiest ways to feed your landscape plants and recycle the lawn and garden debris we all have. There are basically two ways of composting; the “hard” way and the “easy” way. First, lets look at the easy way:

The Easy Way:

Simply find a spot that is out of the way on your property and make a pile of leaves, grass clippings, dead plant material, and vegetative food scraps. You can even toss in a few small sticks if you want to. Just keep adding to the pile. You can turn it over occasionally if you would like, but this is the easy way remember, don’t get too carried away! Think about it….what does Mother nature do with all the leaves and other dead plant materials? She composts it! Does she worry about getting the right green to brown ratio? Does she turn it over every week? No, everything just breaks down at it’s own pace. Does this sound like something you can do? Of course. The only downside to composting the easy way is the length of time your pile will actually become compost. It will take much longer because you are not tending it. By tending, I mean being conscious of the brown to green ratio, being sure it is constantly moist, and turning it regularly. In a year or two, the pile will be reduced to what is called “Black Gold”, or compost. Simply remove the dark stuff that looks like dirt, and spread it around your plants.

Don’t want to wait a few years for the compost? Well, maybe you should try…

The Hard Way:

OK, I didn’t mean to scare you with the term the hard way. The hard way just takes a little more pre-planning and work throughout the composting process. Planning where to put a compost pile if you are going to tend it requires nothing more than this: locating a spot that will be in the sun, near enough to a hose to be able to water it occasionally. Then all that is left is turning or mixing the pile approximately once a week, adding materials to the pile, and paying attention to what the pile is doing while you turn it over. That’s it, that is all the planning and the required “hard” work! Well, you could complicate it a little more by actually making an square enclosure with old shipping pallets or even by making a 4 foot circle out of chicken wire, but that is making things way too complicated isn’t it?

Once you have located a good spot, simply start your pile by adding your material this way: A layer of green material, a layer of brown (dead) material, another green layer, etc… you get the point. Some folks get wrapped up in getting just the right carbon (brown) to nitrogen (green) ratio, which is 30:1 by the way, but lets not make the “hard” way of composting too hard huh? Just try to have more brown than green. Just keep adding green and brown materials, including table scraps, to the pile. Never add meat or milk to your pile, it will not break down, and will contaminate the pile. Also, NEVER add dog waste to your compost! Dog waste contains bacteria, viruses and other nasty stuff that will not be eliminated during the composting process. If you use dog waste and spread it around your plants, you risk spreading these diseases to other animals.

Be sure to moisten the layers as you place them. Moisture is extremely important in the composting process. Don’t get them too wet, just moist. Too much moisture will cool down the materials and slow down the natural decomposition of the materials, compact the pile, and make the compost pile smell. The microbes that are breaking down the materials cannot perform well under too wet conditions. If you have a pile that is too wet and smells, turn it. This will help evaporate some moisture, and allow air to penetrate the pile. Occasionally, the pile will need to have moisture added while turning to replenish the moisture lost while composting.

Turning the pile serves a few purposes. It mixes the materials, distributes the moisture and microbes throughout the pile, and enables oxygen to be distributed throughout the pile. The microbes need this oxygen to survive, and frequent turning of the pile keeps them happy. One other thing turning does is allows the materials that are decomposing to come in contact with materials that may not be decomposing. The materials that are actively breaking down are creating heat, and our little friends the microbes need the heat to survive, multiply, and just plain be happy.

The last thing needed to compost the “hard” way is to pay attention to the heat the pile is giving off while you turn it. That heat is one of the big keys to a successful compost heap. The optimal temperature of a compost pile is 131° F. That is quite warm! A cold pile will break down, but a hot pile will break down much faster, and kill any weed seeds that may be present. I have had compost piles that broke down a full pickup truck load of grass clipping in just 3 weeks. Now those piles where HOT!

That’s it, that is the “hard” way. Not so hard huh?  Just adding a few steps to the “easy” way of composting will allow you to have compost much sooner, and your plants will love you for it.

A word of caution: Many composting authorities will tell you it is ok to use horse manure in your compost, and I am sure there are thousands, if not millions of folks who have used it and got great results, but personally I suggest that you stay away from it. Horses don’t digest their food anywhere near efficiently as cows do. This means that there will be some weed seeds present in the manure. If the compost pile doesn’t get to temperature and stay at the optimum temperature, the seeds won’t be killed. These seeds CAN and WILL germinate in the compost pile, and anywhere you use the compost. Your gardens, potted plants, flower beds, anywhere!

I decided to try (one more time…) adding horse manure to my compost pile, and used very old horse manure. It was so old, it looked like muck. Stupid move! I had to remove hundreds of landscape plants from pots that were overgrown with a very aggressive grass because the seeds that were in the manure did not get killed either naturally, or in the compost pile. The roots of the grass were so large, that when I tried to remove the grass by pulling it out of the soil, the entire contents of the pot came with it! No soil left in the pot; it was so entwined in the grass root! These were fairly small clumps of grass. The larger clumps had grown throughout the entire pot, and out the bottom drainage holes and into the soil beneath. Those pots were pretty tough to just separate from the ground!

Save yourself some trouble by not using horse manure. Remember, you are making compost the easy way. It is not easy removing the aggressive grass from your gardens.

For more information on composting, try Florida’s Online Composting Center. They have a great chart showing the carbon and nitrogen ratios of some common composting materials for a quick reference when building your pile. OOPS! That may make our “hard” way of composting just unbearable.

Dwayne Haskell owns and operates Mistkits.com where complete misting kits, individual components, and advice can be found. After building his own misting system for his nursery, he realized he could design and build systems for small nurseries or home gardeners who are interested in starting their own plants from cuttings.

He has written an E-book titled Build an Arbor in Just One Weekend, and another on gardening, landscaping and plant propagation tips. He also enjoys teaching others how to grow their own landscape plants and owns and moderates the Mistkits blog, where you can find more articles, polls, and quizzes on landscape and gardening related topics.

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