Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Compost Happens

My current 4-bin composting system.
Compost is the staff of life. Whether you build piles of debris to make compost, or let stuff compost right there in the garden, everything grows better with compost.
Compost is right for every soil type. If you have tight clay soil, compost will loosen it up and help it drain better. If you have loose, sandy soil, compost adds bulk and helps it retain moisture. If you have just-right soil, well, you can make a good thing better with compost.

Can you find the compost heap in this picture? It is hidden by all the pretty things that came up from seed in the materials heaped for composting.
Composting is easy. All you have to do is pile stuff up and it decomposes, eventually. The right mix of materials, water and turning will make it break down more quickly, by providing more oxygen, nitrogen and other stuff for the microorganisms doing most of the work. These microorganisms create heat as they work and various types work best at different temperatures. The temperature of a compost heap can exceed 160 degrees, which kills many seeds and disease-causing microorganisms. However, beneficial microbial activity decreases and even ceases when it gets that hot.

A frequently turned compost heap made with plenty of nitrogen-containing materials will melt snow and steam in the winter. My compost piles do not do this, however, as I employ the cool ("lazy gardener's") method.
Cooler, slower composting yields a material that is richer in disease-fighting fungi and other beneficial microorganisms. Nitrogen content also is higher in compost made by this slower process. It is your choice whether to work it hot or cool, it all depends on how quickly you want it. A hot pile can be ready in as little as a few weeks, while a cool pile can take 6 months to a year. Personally, I am patient and have other things to do besides turning compost.
Decomposition is conducted by the life cycles of various types of microorganisms, bacteria, actinomycetes (a type of bacteria), fungi, protozoa (one-celled animals) and rotifers (some kind of microscopic organism). But earthworms and other larger critters also play a roll in digesting and excreting organic matter.
A professional nursery worker once told me that compost would be good for my apple trees, but wouldn't provide much nutrition. That is false. Compost contains lots of nutrients, as well as beneficial microorganisms. The nutritional value of the compost depends on what materials are put in it and the process by which you make it, as well as whether you let it sit uncovered and let the nutrients leach out or oxidize.
It would be a waste of space for me to go through the "proper" composting process here, as millions of other Web sites can enlighten you. I have put links to several of them at the end of this post.
My tips for composting are 1. Cut up or chop materials as smaller pieces decompost more quickly. 2. Avoid putting materials containing lots of seeds, or heavily diseased or pest-infested materials. 3. Turn or just poke the pile occasionally to improve air flow. 4. You don't need a fancy bin to keep it in. And 5. Don't be afraid of it. Just do it.
This summer I built the 4-bin composting system in the top photo. Before that, the compost heap was just a big pile with 8-foot tall sunflower stalks and such. Smaller piles are easier to turn and work with.
Our new tractor. Isn't she cute?
Now, however, we have a small tractor with a front loader. I now have the capability to create big piles of debris and turn them with the tractor's front loader. So my composting practice will change, again.
Composting is a dynamic process. There is no reason the pile has to stay in one place. In fact, you can make a compost heap over an area that you want to convert to a garden bed. After you've composted there for a few months, the grass and weeds will (mostly) be smothered and you will have some nice, rice soil for planting.
Following are several links to sites about composting. The first is to a great article from Mother Earth News. Practical, helpful information. The article has several pages, so be sure to click "next" when you are done reading the page until you've read all 10 tips.  Next an article by Paul James, the Gardening Guy, from HGTV's "Gardening by the Yard," followed by a link to an episode with composting info. I love Paul James. Now a few more links, just for good measure.

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