Way back when, as small children, we learned how to tie our shoes. Remember how complicated it seemed? Remember crying when you stepped on your laces and untied the very shoe you’d spent an hour tying? And now, you chuckle as you teach your children and grandchildren.
Compost is like tying your shoes. It literally isn’t any harder. Read this to believe – composting really isn’t any harder than tying your shoes!
Did you ever find some mysterious food packed carefully into a container and placed in the refrigerator months before that you simply cannot begin to guess what it originally looked like? (If you say no, you’re lying)
Since we’ve all had that experience, know that you have already made compost – that’s one example. That mystery stuff is compost (but make sure it’s not meat before you toss it on your garden). Now let’s move on to getting much nicer looking and better smelling compost.
Compost, quite simply, is vegetable matter that is so thoroughly rotted that you really can’t figure out what it was originally. That’s all it is – but it’s called “black gold” by gardeners for a reason. Being made out of the very stuff that plants need to grow – made from plants themselves – compost of course is full to the brim with nutrients that plants just crave. Yes, it really is a sort of fertilizer.
But compost is more than just free fertilizer you make yourself. Above and beyond the marvelous plant vitamin boost, compost contains fungi and bacteria. The good ones. Compost is also a kind of pro-biotic for your flora. So, that’s why we want to make compost.
NOTE: don’t, really, really, really, don’t use meats or fatty materials in your compost, whatever method you choose. In addition to possibly attracting unwelcome attention from unloved varmints like rats, the fats and proteins slow down the decomposition process; it’s almost like compost indigestion.
You really don’t need complicated compost bins of any sort. Whatever method you choose, you’ll have wonderful, vitamin packed, pro-biotic compost for your hungry plants. All you really have to do is pile up your vegetable garbage and walk away.
Yes. Farmers have done this for centuries. It works, too. Lazy gardener that I am, that’s my favorite approach to composting. I literally just pile weeds, vegetable kitchen scraps, leaves, whatever, up to a height that strikes me as good enough, and I start another pile. Usually, I dig around the bottom of the pile a bit to spread the soil over the top, but it’s not totally necessary and, let’s face it, I don’t always feel like doing that. Sometimes it’s just too hot out. I make do with the latest pile of weeds as a topping.
Next year I dig out the compost and put it wherever I want. It looks like soil, and that’s because, in the end, that’s what soil is – broken down plant matter. This method is why you may have heard the term “compost heap.” With any heap, try to use the material on the bottom first since that is where it’s most ready.
Other folks like to dig trenches and pile everything in one, covering it over with the soil removed in the trenching process. Again, walk away, come back next year (dig another trench for more kitchen and yard waste).
Both of these approaches have the joy of simplicity to recommend them, but they also maintain activity during cool/cold months, which generally shuts down the composting process in other production methods. They also produce compost that looks just like the soil it is.
Other methods can give you exciting-to-look-at compost. It’s just as good, but better looking. And here’s where you can really have fun with exciting ideas for the perfect compost (why not?). These methods involve more thought and exercise, but, as a rule, you can get results in only a few months instead of waiting until next year.
Now, let’s consider ultimate compost. While you can make compost with just one type of material – leaf mold comes to mind, for that, see below – as a rule of thumb a mixture of materials is best. Remember, no meats or fatty ingredients!
You’re looking to mix “wet” ingredients with “dry” ingredients, in roughly equal measure (it’s not rocket science). Wet ingredients are those that will break down very easily, weeds (try not to include weed seeds), grass clippings and most kitchen waste, like coffee grounds or fruit and vegetable scraps. Dry ingredients take longer to break down; dead leaves are “dry,” as well as pine needles, straw, sticks, sawdust, newspaper, coffee filters and the like. Many people make layers, like a lasagna; this is called “sheet composting” if you like fancy names. Sheet composting, or simple mixtures that are well tended, can provide compost in a matter of months.
With a good mixture of all of this – in layers on the ground or mixed in a bin or other composter – the material will heat up quickly, reaching, sometimes, 140° F. The heat aids the decomposition and certainly lets you know it’s happening. You can reach right in and feel what’s going on or you can use a metal rod inserted into the center. Leave the rod there for a little while, say, half an hour, and pull it out. Is it warm? Good. Hot? Great. Cool? Not so good.
If it’s cool to touch, it’s likely your material needs some help. Is it too dry, perhaps? You should be able to squeeze the material and feel a little wet on your fingers. Perfect! Fingers are dry? Water the heap, just as you would water your plants, and stir. Water pouring through your fingers? It’s too wet, so add some dry material and stir.
You’ll really speed up the process if you “stir” your compost on a regular basis, every week or so. This brings oxygen into the pile, which helps keep happy bacteria chomping away. You’ll know you need to do this if your mixture stinks like Hercules’ socks. That stink is anaerobic decomposition, “without air” decomposition, and, while you’ll get great compost, anaerobic decomposition is a smelly process. Air helps a lot.
If you think about it, all you’re really doing is making sure that living creatures, like bacteria, have water to drink and air to breathe. “Stirring” isn’t complicated; it can generally be done with a shovel or a garden fork. Just turn the pile over as best you can – it will get all stirred. Anaerobic decomposition depends upon fungus instead of bacteria, and it makes great compost, but it will smell until it’s finished.
Carefully tended and stirred, you can get great compost in a matter of weeks. Sort through it if you like pretty compost; you can pull out any not yet decomposed matter and throw it back in. Sticks can actually help your piles because they keep the material from compacting, which blocks air circulation. Some folks sift it loosely over a wheelbarrow, so it’s easy to move around once you’ve finished that.
If you like bins or other composting containers, you may wish to consider using two rather than just one. This is because composting, which is, quite simply, rotting, happens as soon as you add things to the mixture, but time is required to fully break down the material. At any one moment a pile can have fully rotted material and new additions, which have just begun the process. Here is where two bins, or heaps, trenches, whatever, is useful.
Two bins or heaps, allows one to fully mature so that when you collect it for your garden, it’s completely ready while the other is still acquiring new materials which are starting the break down process. Two bins or heaps aren’t truly necessary, just very nice. If you utilize only one, you will need to sort it when you remove your garden-ready compost. It’s fine, and many people do this all the time.
Since fall is now upon us, some folks might be interested in making leaf mold.
Leaf mold is exactly what you think it is. Just composted leaves. Leaf mold is, perhaps, the best of all composts to use as a mulch around your plants, as it’s great at conserving moisture and high in nitrogen. All compost can be used as a mulch; leaf mold is generally better looking and great at preventing weeds.
It’s easy to make, especially if you have a leaf shredder. Leaf shredders speed up the process magnificently. Unshredded leaves will take two years to become the glorious leaf mold, but shredded leaves will get you there in one. Classically – and this is an ancient art – leaves are piled in an enclosed area to keep them from blowing away and left alone. Chicken wire enclosures work perfectly, although you can use whatever you’d like.
Maureen Rice is a naturalist/gardener living in Talbot County. She is the author of “Not! Your Granny’s Garden.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the blog straight to your inbox.