Composting...Where a Breakdown is a Good Thing
Composting is not only satisfying for gardeners and beneficial for your garden, it helps take the pressure off your local landfill. Alan Ray breaks down the benefits of making your own soil.
Compostn.-Decayed organic material such as leaves, grass clippings and vegetables used as a plant fertilizer.
Compost is essentially an earthy material produced by the natural breakdown of organic matter. Compost is also known as mulch and making your own organic mulch is simple. If you can toss a banana peel, you can make compost. You can use a man-made compost tumbler, bin, or even a small area in your yard will work very well.
Composting: Good for the Planet, Good for the Plants
Not only is making your own mulch by composting easy, aside from a meager initial investment, it costs you nothing to maintain and is good for the environment and your plants. All that food we toss into the trash everyday has to be hauled away then dumped into a landfill. Once there, it has to be moved and managed, which requires more gas-powered machinery and manpower, further contributing to the trashing of our little planet.
By composting, not only do you reduce your contribution to pollution and landfills, but you harness the magic of nature to create a superior medium in which to grow your favorite plants, herbs, flowers or vegetables. It’s kind of funny because once you get started you actually get into it. It is a satisfying endeavor in unsuspecting ways.
As simple as making your own compost is, there is a complex system at work breaking down all those organic materials to create a soil that is rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Compost can be used to amend and enhance the nutrients in your garden soil and makes an excellent all-natural fertilizer.
What’s Happening Inside That Compost Pile?
For the most part, what goes on within a compost pile is undetectable to the naked eye. In an open-air pile, a variety of insects, worms, snails and fungi take up residence and contribute to its breakdown. On a microscopic level, inside that heap of decaying matter resides a bustling community of microbes (organisms too small to be seen) and bacteria that promote decaying of the material aerobically (using oxygen). However, bacteria are the grunt workers of the pile. They promote the quick decomposition of the material releasing carbon dioxide, which in turn creates the heat necessary for the transubstantiation to occur.
How to Make Some Compost
To begin, you’re going to need some organic material. The list of what you can use to create your compost is long and varied. Below is a short list to give you a reference point.
- Egg shells
- Coffee grounds
- Banana peels
- Fruits like apples, melon rinds, orange peels, rotten tomatoes
- Vegetables such as beans, cabbage, potatoes, celery, lettuce and more
Most anything organic that will decay can be thrown onto the heap and nature will do the rest. There are a few steps required by you to make it all work though. If you have a designated area set up for your compost pile, you’re ready to get started. The same applies if you have a tumbler or bin, but let’s begin with the open-air pile.
Open Air Compost Pile
With open air composting you are essentially replicating what takes place naturally on the forest floor. Dried leaves, grasses, nuts, seeds and twigs begin to decompose creating a nutrient-packed soil in which new plant life begins to grow. You probably don’t want your pile to exceed 3x3 feet as you have to work it to some degree and it can be a bit labor intensive if any bigger. Moreover, smaller piles make mulch in a much shorter period of time.
However, you are going to help accelerate that natural process. Throw your chosen organic materials into a pile. Avoid throwing in any bones, meat, grease, animal by-products or dairy-based material. Meat and bones don’t break down well and meat can contain anabolic steroids and growth hormones. As for dairy products, if you have to work the pile with a rake or hoe, you don’t want an effluvium of sour milk wafting in your face.
Just Add Water
Water and air are necessary components to good composting. Brown materials such as leaves and dried grasses produce carbon while green organic materials produce nitrogen. Both combine to produce heat. For best and fastest results you will need to keep your compost pile moist. If your pile is in a shaded area you will water less often as the materials are out of the sun and drying is slowed. When a pile is exposed to the sun’s rays it will naturally dry out faster.
With a garden hose, thoroughly wet the pile. You want it wet… but not soaking wet. It needs to be moist. After wetting down the pile you’ll want to aerate it by turning it with a pitchfork, rake, or hoe or by using a compost aerator. Stirring up the matter introduces oxygen and serves to reheat the pile.
Additionally, turning the pile helps facilitate the decomposition process by introducing air, water and heat. Fluffing it up exposes all areas and prevents your pile from sinking into a solid heap, which takes much longer to break down. Bring the dried edges into the moist center of the pile as you stir it up.
Troubleshooting Your Compost System
If your mulch pile begins to stink, you may have too much green material in it. Green material produces nitrogen and too much can cause an unpleasant smell. This is an easy fix. Simply introduce more brown material and toss it well. In no time you can eliminate that offensive odor emanating from the pile. Once fluffed, the organic material will balance out as more exposed surface area is permeated by heat and air. Always turn or fluff your pile after adding material or after wetting it down. Very important.
The Tumbler Method of Composting
Personally, I have always used the open-pile method. That is about to change, however, as over the summer I incorporated the tumbler method of composting. With a tumbler you can have remarkably rich soil for all your gardening needs in half the time of a conventional pile and with less toil—weeks versus months.
The tumbler is a convenient invention that not only produces excellent mulch but in a short amount of time. Essentially, it is a closed drum suspended in a frame that can be turned or tumbled by cranking the handle. It has a door of course for introducing material.
Tumblers are perfect for older folks and people that aren’t able to shovel and dig on a regular basis. Tumblers are also simple to use, efficient, and can produce earth-friendly compost within weeks. With a tumbler the same methods apply. Add and wet your materials, then with the handy handle give them a spin. You can easily tumble your compost anytime without the need for rakes, pitchforks or hoes.
Making your own compost is good on so many levels:
- Earth-friendly as it reduces waste
- Eliminates burning at landfills and the fossil-fueled equipment needed to manage it
- Lessens your carbon footprint by not buying mulch in air polluting plastic wrappers shipped by truck and train
- Plants thrive in an organic soil free from chemicals
- Pride of accomplishment
They’re not making any more dirt but you can easily make your own and enjoy a bountiful and healthy harvest while having had a hand in making the world a cleaner and better place. And it’s dirt cheap to do.
A world of information is available online about tumblers, bins and open piles along with the tools available for making home composting even easier. Composting… a breakdown that feels good!