Composting Basics

Compost BinCompost epitomizes the creativity and fertility of the Earth, where grass clippings, wood ash, apple cores, and egg shells magically transform into fertile, rich soil. Like soil, compost is a knot of many interconnected relationships, illustrating the infinite creativity of the Earth. The word compost comes from the Latin componere, “to put together.” This “black gold” of waste, water, air, and micro-organisms perform a juicy process that yields fertile soil.

While you can purchase compost from garden centers, making your own saves money and connects you directly with your garden. Creating your own compost not only ensures that you know exactly what goes into your soil- commercial compost is not regulated in many states and can include just about anything, including high-salt manure and weed seeds- it also establishes an immediate relationship between you and your garden as your trees, vegetables, flowers, and lawn benefit directly from your actions.

Composted Kitchen WasteSome of your household waste and the waste from your yard directly nourishes your garden, the food that grows there, and your body, soul, and community. Composting reduces our negative impact on the land by keeping kitchen and yard waste out of landfills. By composting, you participate in nature’s laws of cycling and recycling.

Beginning the soil-building process with compost is a crucial first step in building a healthy garden, as compost boosts soil nutrient levels, encourages beneficial bacteria, and improves soil condition. Additional fertilizers cannot be absorbed by plants without help from soil micro-organisms, and soil micro-organisms need lots or organic matter to thrive. By starting with rich compost, you create a habitat where micro-organisms can help plants absorb whatever they need.

Usually compost provides a balance of nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and other nutrients, but you may need to add additional fertilizer for certain crops known as heavy feeder, those plants that require large amounts of certain nutrients. (Compost is not, strictly speaking, a fertilizer. Fertilizers feed plants, while amendments, like compost, feed soil.)

Mature CompostTo make your own compost, you need a bin of at least three cubic feet large that allows for air flow. Old crates, 3/4 inch wire mesh, and other strong but open materials make the best walls for a compost bin. You can also build it out of a clean food- grade 50-gallon drum on a tumbler that you rotate daily; or take an old garbage can, drill holes in the sides for air flow, and bury the bottom a few feet in the ground. You can also simply create a pile in the corner of the garden. Choose a location that is handy to get to from the kitchen and the garden alike, and one that is easily accessible by water. If you have room, build several bins or piles and fill them one at a time.

In your bin or pile, layer grass clippings that have not been treated with chemicals, small amounts of leaf waste, wood ash, soils, herbivore feces, and kitchen scraps. Brown matter like dried grass, leaves, or sawdust provides carbon, while green matter like fresh leaves and kitchen waste provides nitrogen. Manure is, despite its color, a “green” compost material, and it is very high in nitrogen.

You need a balance of carbon, nitrogen, water, and air to create the ideal condition for compost; most garden and kitchen waste is too high in carbon to decay rapidly, so adding a source of nitrogen like manure will help speed up the composting process. If you don;t live near and farms or horse stables, manure and other nitrogen-rich amendments can be purchased at garden centers prebagged or in bulk.

A Compost HeapMake sure your pile stays moist, about as wet as a rung out sponge. Turn it periodically to aerate and mix the ingredients. If you have a problem with neighborhood animals like dogs or raccoons, make sure you have a door and a solid latch on your bin to keep them out.

I do not add citrus or onions to my compost, for they tend to slow the decay process or simply decay more slowly than the rest of the pile, but if your pile generates enough heat and has just the right conditions, this will matter less. Do not add dog or cat feces, they can contain disease bacteria. Do not add butter, other oils, or meat, all of which can rot anaerobically and attract pests, from salmonella to rats. Do not include diseased plants, noxious weeds, invasive vines, or seeds.

If you have a lot of resinous matter like pine needles, use them to mulch around acid-loving plants like strawberries rather than include it in the compost, as it will slow or halt the decay. Same with cedar shavings; use these as mulch only where you don’t want other plants to grow, and never put them in your compost.

This article is an excerpt from Sacred Land by Clea Danaan

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