Composting can be a great way to add inexpensive fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil to your garden, as well as an eco-friendly way to reduce the amount of waste that you produce. Composting is also very easy, although it takes a bit of time and care to do properly. Once you get into the habit, composting becomes second nature!
What Is Compost?
Compost is simply decomposed organic matter that has turned into dark and crumbly soil. Decomposition happens organically in nature, but the process of composting at home accelerates the natural process by keeping decomposing material at optimal moisture and temperature levels. The result is a rich conditioner that can help your garden to maximize its potential.
Why Should I Compost?
Composting offers a variety of practical and environmental benefits to those who aren’t afraid to get dirty. For your garden, adding compost will add nutrients to your soil from the organic matter that went into the compost. Compost also adds many friendly microorganisms that will help to keep your soil and your plants healthy. If fertilizer is necessary to make your soil productive, using your own compost can save you money over purchasing a commercial fertilizer.
On the environmental front, composting your household organic matter can help you to reduce the waste that ends up in your trashcan and later in a landfill by more than 30 percent. Approximately one-third of the waste that currently ends up in landfills is material that could be composted. Additionally, using compost rather than chemical fertilizers helps to keep potentially disruptive compounds out of the soil and run-off.
How Do I Get Started?
Creating a container for your compost is highly recommended. Although you can compost in a simple pile on the ground, keeping your compost in a container will help you to keep your pile decomposing actively as well as making it less accessible to foraging animals.
Commercial compost tumblers can be found on the market, but it is cheaper to make your own, and you can expect equally good results with minimal exertion. One easy and effective method of creating a compost container is to cut the bottom out of a heavy-duty plastic trashcan. You want to start your compost pile on bare earth if possible so that air and friendly organisms like worms can get into your compost and help it to break down. Additionally, you should drill small holes into the sides of the can to allow even more air to access the decomposing material.
Once your container is ready, all you need to do is begin gathering organic material to begin decomposing.
What Should Go In My Compost?
Any material in the world will eventually break down, but some ingredients make better (and quicker) compost than others. In order to make sure that your compost is active and full of great soil-enriching ingredients, there are several types of organic matter that you should be sure to include.
Since your compost pile will be draining and breathing from the bottom, adding a initial layer of twigs, bush clippings, or straw will help to make sure that the pile does not get too dense and clogged right off the bat.
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Your material will compost quickest if you have a good mixture of dry and moist ingredients. You can ensure a good mixture by adding dry and moist ingredients in layers to give them the best opportunity to interact with each other.
You also want your compost materials to provide a good balance of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich matter. In general, moist ingredients like food scraps, manures, coffee grounds, etc., will be high in nitrogen. Other nitrogen-rich materials include the remains of vegetable plants, green leaves, grass cuttings, and weeds before they have developed seeds.
Dry and brown matter is generally high in carbon. Dead plants, leaves, sawdust, straw, wood ashes (sprinkled to avoid clumping), shredded cardboard, newspaper, and paper napkins are all rich in carbon. Carbon matter provides the fiber and substance to your compost, while nitrogen-rich matter is responsible for stimulating the heat and decomposition reactions in your compost.
A healthy compost pile will have more dry, carbon-rich ingredients than moist ingredients. With too much nitrogen and moisture, the compost will not be able to breathe sufficiently and will become wet and inactive. However, too little nitrogen-rich matter will slow the composting process.
Many people do not realize the many household waste items that can be composted. In addition to newspaper, wood ash, and cardboard, you can also compost egg shells, dryer lint, wood chips, seaweed, kelp, rabbit and pigeon manure, tea bags, and human or pet hair.
What Should Stay Out?
While everything will decompose eventually, you do not have millennia to wait for great compost. As a result, you want to stick to plant-based material that will break down relatively quickly. There are also certain materials that are likely to make your compost pile a magnet for unwanted pests in search of a meal. And certain ingredients have the potential to make your compost unsafe to use as fertilizer in a vegetable garden.
Bread products, bones, and meat products are the ingredients that will make your compost most attractive to animals. This may be a major or minor concern for you, depending on where you live. If pests are not a significant problem at your home, you can get away with composting most bread products and some meat. If raccoons, dogs, or even larger animals are a concern, limit your bread products and keep meat out altogether.
If you will be using your compost on indoor plants or vegetable gardens, do not include wild animal manure or human feces. Some people may refer to avoid animal feces altogether to eliminate the risk of disease, but many people who raise chickens or other fowl are able to use the manure very successfully. Sawdust or wood chips from commercial sources are also questionable, since the wood may have been treated and could leach chemicals into your compost.
Some items that can make great compost will work out even better if you give them a helping hand. Melon rind, pineapple husk, or cardboard will take much longer to decompose than other items unless you give them a start by shredding or cutting them into small pieces.
How Do I Tend My Compost Pile?
You need to turn or mix your compost pile to keep air circulating and decomposition active. You can undertake to mix your pile thoroughly inside its container with a pitchfork, or you can move your compost bin and shovel the pile into the new location, thoroughly mixing it in the process.
Heat and moisture are the best indications that your compost pile is healthy and active. The compost should have roughly the moisture of a damp sponge, with a wet feel to the touch but not wet enough that water could be squeezed out of it. The pile should also be warm or even hot – an indication that lots of microbial activity is taking place inside the compost. Feeling your compost pile with your hand is the best way to determine its level of activity. If the pile feels cool, the material is just sitting there rather than decomposing.
If your pile is not active, you need to get the material more of the ingredients it is lacking. If the pile seems too soggy, it is likely that it needs more carbon-rich material; however, it is more likely that an inactive compost pile needs more nitrogen-rich matter to stimulate decomposition. If you feel like your compost has a good balance, it may just need to be turned and mixed thoroughly so that the different ingredients can come into better contact with each other.
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