Compost, which in its most basic form is simply the process of decomposition, began long before we humans ever took it upon ourselves to make it an organized activity. Given enough time and the proper conditions, organic material breaks down. Composting, as we use the term today, is a system for enhancing, and thus accelerating, the natural process of decomposition. Since composting is going to take place with or without us, we can make the process as simple or as complex as we choose and be assured of success every time.
To get a compost pile working well, it’s essential to have several layers of an activator throughout the pile. An activator is a source of both nitrogen and protein – ingredients that help all the various microorganisms and bacteria break down compost material.
Alfalfa meal is one of the cheapest, quickest-acting activators. If you can’t find it at your garden or feed store, look in the supermarket for Litter Green (a cat littler product that is 100% alfalfa meal).
Every time you add new material to the pile, dust it thoroughly with alfalfa meal and moisten the pile a little. Alfalfa meal is an excellent source of nitrogen and protein. Made from alfalfa hay, it is usually 14% – 16% protein. Other good activators include barnyard manure, bone meal, cottonseed meal or a good, rich garden soil. Any time you add to your compost pile, dust it with a little activator & water.
In a hurry-up world, the making of leaf mold is largely forgotten. Because the leaves have little nitrogen, they decompose slowly and do not heat up as they would if high-nitrogen material were added to them.
The 2-year process of decomposition can be hastened by running the leaves through a shredder before piling them. Fence the pile in to prevent them from blowing back on your lawn. Stamp the pile down. Expect to see it half its orginal size when the leaves have truned to leaf mold and are ready for use.
After a year, turn the pile, cutting it and mixing it as much as possible. In this stage it can be used as a mulch, and will be welcomed by earth worms.
What to add to your Compost
Here’s a handy list of what you can use in your pile:
- Kitchen scraps – vegetable & fruit rinds, egg shells, coffee grinds, filters, tea leaves, etc.
- bird or pet cage cleanings, animal droppings
- Pine needles, tree leaves, wood chips, rotten wood, saw dust, wood ash
- Yard waste, grass clippings, weeds, dead plants, pond weeds
- Feathers, hair, nail clippings
- garden waste – leaves, stalks, husks, roots
- fruit or vegetable bi-product from wine, cider or jam making
What NOT to add to your Compost
Not all organic material is suitable for compost. Animal bones and other animal waste are inappropriate, as are grease and oils because they take a long time to break down and will attract animal pests. Sewage sludge may contain heavy metals that you don’t want to use in your garden.
- branches or limbs that will take a long time to break down – chip or shred first
- Eucalyptus – the oil will prevent plant growth in the garden
- Magnolia leave take years to break down
- Bermuda grass, nut grass, morning glory, butter cup, English ivy, or other “tough-to-stop” spreading plants.
- Diseased plants should be burned not composted
- Coal ash, charcoal contain too much sulfur and iron.
- Be sure your newspaper uses biodegradable ink, otherwise do not use it in the garden
- Cat or dog litter can harbour pathogens.
Using your Compost
Your compost is ready when it resembles black, fluffy soil and has a sweet earthy smell. Compost is best used within a few months of being ready – the longer it sits, the more nutrients will decompose and leach away. As the compost continues to breakdown, it’s soil texture-improving qualities diminish as well.
Compost is not a substitute to fertilizer, it is most often used to improve soil quality. Large scale addition of compost to your garden is best done in the fall. It may be spread evenly on the ground. Because we practice Permaculture Farming, we do not till the compost in, but let it over winter on the surface.
Finished compost can also be added a few weeks before planting in the spring. Many gardeners insist that nothing can take the place of a shovelful of compost mixed in planting holes for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and members of the cabbage family. Melons, cucumbers, and squash need composts’ richness to send out strong healthy vines.
Compost is also used to side-dress hungry crops. Screen the compost with a sieve, then mix it into the seedbed, or use it to cover fine seeds during planting. The screened mixture can also be used to top-dress lawns in the spring or fall, or mix 1 part compost and 2 parts potting soil for a rich potting soil mix. Don’t forget to use your compost tea, your plants will love it!!!
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