Back in the olden days composting was the way of life though they didn’t call it composting. All human waste was thrown out into the streets to disintegrate into what we now call a valuable gardening asset. Back then it was just muck, very smelly muck. Of course, this only made for really horrid living conditions. Now we have recycling and waste management (Thank you so much!) to take care of such and indoor plumbing to take care of the rest. But there is still a great deal of stuff that we need to dispose of. The miracle is we can use some of this stuff, the organic matter to be exact, to enrich our garden soil. I can attest that composting will lead you to gardening Nirvana. I was first introduced to composting as a small child when I saw my father digging a hole in his vegetable garden after a fishing trip. He tossed fish guts, tails and fins in the hole and covered it up.
“What’s that for, Papi?” I asked curiously.
“It’s good for the plants.” was his simple reply. Later I found out that Native Americans made it a practice to bury a whole fish at the ends of planting rows of corn, peas and squash. I’ll bet if I had asked them why they did this they would have answered as casually as my father had.
My father also had dug a hole behind the tool shed and over the growing season he dumped weeds, grass clipping, leaves and kitchen scraps in it. As a child I thought it was really weird that the pile never got too high. It just seemed like magic the way it seemed to shrink. The stuff at the bottom seemed to disappear. It took me a while to figure out it just turned into something that looked just like soil. My father used it on his garden, around his plants and even worked some into the lawn where the grass wasn’t growing very well. It seemed to work wonders.
Once I grew up to have a garden of my own I learned the necessity of a compost pile. Not only did it provide a place for grass clipping from all those lawns we suburbanites insist on having plus the autumn leaves we rake up but also for the weeds that seem to grow better than our plants. That this stuff would disintegrate into “black gold”, something that provided nutrients for your plants giving them a healthy boost just made it something addictive to the true garden enthusiast.
So, now that I’ve got you hooked, how do you make a compost pile for the benefit of your garden? Easy as tossing weeds into a bucket. Let’s take it step by step.
Placement : Pick a spot in your yard which is easily accessible. You’ll need to get to it so don’t put it in Timbuktu or you’ll never use it and that’s the point of having it. The place should get plenty of sun. While it’s not absolutely necessary to have it in full sun it is preferable. The sun heats up the pile to encourage quicker decomposition.
Aesthetics : It seems that some folks have an aversion to the compost pile because it detracts from the beauty of their yard. This is easily fixed. To make the compost pile more pleasing to the eye one should place it in an out-of-the-way place (like my dad putting it behind the tool shed) or one might consider surrounding it with hale bales, fencing or simply growing a hedge around it. Mine is far removed from my formal gardens and causes me no embarrassment. One could buy one of those prefabricated composting bins but why spend huge amounts of money on something so utterly natural that requires nothing but a bit of space and the right conditions?
Misconceptions : I’ve heard the unwarranted concern of the compost pile smelling badly and thus attracting unwanted wildlife such as rodents and other scavengers. This has never been a problem for me. The trick is to never put things into the pile that would attract animals such as meat products and to ensure the ingredients of the pile are in good proportion, a good mix of both nitrogenous and carbonaceous materials. I’ll explain that further in a bit.
So, now that you’ve picked out a good location and have picked your method of hiding it, what exactly can go into the compost pile? Anything organic which is to say anything that will decompose, rot, disintegrate, break down. The obvious things are grass clippings, leaves, weeds and those withered tomato vines at the end of the growing season. But did you also know that pet hair, newspapers, horse and cow manure, shredded paper, sawdust, hay, seaweed, ash from the fireplace, seashells, egg shells, the entire vacuum cleaner bag and even your junk mail can go into it? Yes, all these things will eventually decompose. Heck, even rocks decompose. That is how we got the Grand Canyon, you know. Of course that did take millions of years and we just don’t have that much time, do we? So let’s stick with easily disintegrating things. I know, I know. I said seashells but I throw them in already crushed. They provide trace minerals and calcium both of which are great for my plants. I also throw in oven-dried and crushed chicken bones, which replaces blood meal, a very expensive soil additive. Eggshells, fish tails and shrimp peels get thrown in too, again for trace minerals.
I hear you asking “But aren’t they animal products?” The answer is yes but once dried they are no longer attractive to scavenging animals. A careful balance of materials provides good cover for them too. I mentioned before the need for both nitrogenous and carbonaceous materials to ensure a sweet-smelling pile. Nitrogenous material is the green stuff, grass clipping, kitchen scraps and weeds. Carbonaceous is the brown stuff, dried leaves, saw dust, branches, hay, wood chips and shredded paper. With equal amounts of these two basic materials will decompose more readily without any bad smell.
Things one should never, ever toss into the pile includes cat and dog feces, fats, oils, butter, dairy products and meats. Why anyone would toss a steak into the compost pile is anyone’s guess. I don’t much care for maggots in my compost. I’m just a bit funny that way. These things make for a messy, bad smelling pile and we don’t want that, do we?
Size matters. The size of the compost pile is important. Too big and the stuff gets crushed down not providing enough airflow. The stuff won’t decompose well which results in a bad smelling pile. Branches stuffed between layers keeps things airy. The perfect size is about 3-4 feet high, 4-5 feet long and wide but truly it can be any size you like. The size of the materials going into the pile counts too. The smaller the pieces going in, the quicker they decompose and the faster you get usable compost. A banana peel tossed into the garbage may decompose entirely within two weeks but chop it up, toss it in the pile with microbes, moisture, sun and air to take care of it and it’ll be gone in half that time.
Moisture is crucial in a good hot-cooking pile. A dry pile just won’t be hospitable for the microbes and worms that do all the decomposing. Too wet is not good either. You’ll drown the little guys. The pile should be the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Sprinkle it with the water hose during hot summer days and cover it up with black plastic sheeting to keep in the moisture. This has the added benefit of heating the pile for faster, hotter decomposing. Even during the coldest winter a covered pile may still keep working deep in the core.
There are those who would have you thinking you have to be out there turning the pile every day to help it along. A back-breaking endeavor to say the least. I am not one of those. I have plenty to keep me busy in the garden without having to babysit my compost pile too. I take the lazy gardener’s approach. I let Mother Nature take care of it. I place my careful layers of green and brown stuff making certain it remains light and fluffy and I leave it. The worms and microbes show up on their own. What could be easier?
If you find your compost pile isn’t cooking hot enough you could buy an accelerator available at any garden supply shop. Or you could just buy a few beers for yourself or a neighbor and relieve yourselves onto the pile. Yes, urine is a great accelerator full of bacteria ready to do their thing. Go figure!
Some folks ask me when they can tell the compost is ready for use. When you can no longer tell a potato peel from an oak leaf, newspaper from grass and hair from hay. Basically when it resembles earthy, sweet-smelling, dark, rich soil. I merely dig at the bottom of my pile and there it is.
I hope this helps you on your way to gardening nirvana. I know I’m already there and I highly recommend it.
Author Glory Lennon Resource: To find more on gardening visit http://www.helium.com/user/show/32782