Successful gardening begins with attention to the soil and one of the best ways to improve soil is by regularly adding organic matter. If you have access to the raw ingredients of organic matter, such as lawn, garden and kitchen waste…and everyone does…you are on the way to creating compost.
A common fallacy held by many is that compost is a fertilizer. Although it has some nutritional value to plants, its purpose is not primarily that as a fertilizer, but as a soil amendment and activator. Compost is actually a living, breathing host to trillions of beneficial microorganisms that permeate soil and break down natural and synthetic fertilizers so that they can be easily absorbed by plant roots. Compost can also undo damage to soil caused by overuse of chemical garden solutions. Healthy garden soil is loose, dark-colored, smells kind of sweet, is full of earthworms, and has a high water-holding capacity with adequate drainage. Adding compost to heavy clay soils gives it a better texture and improves drainage. In sandy soils, it absorbs water and improved the water holding capacity.
Many types of organic materials can be used for compost. Sod, grass clippings, leaves, hay straw, old plants, flowers, and old potting soil. Weeds with seeds are best left out of the compost pile. Even though some seeds are killed during the composting process, those that survive might create an unnecessary weed problem in the garden. Kitchen scraps such as coffee grounds, egg shells and vegetable scraps may also be used. Avoid items such as meat scrape and bones, grease or oily foods and fats. These materials may attract unwanted animal guests and develop an unpleasant odor. Fatty foods are also very slow to break down and increase the time required before the compost can be used. It is also recommended to not place diseased plants in the compost heap.
Compost piles work best if they are built in layers. Layering is an easy way to ensure that the materials are added in the proper proportion. Begin with a 4-6 inch layer of chopped brush or other coarse materials. Then add a 3-4 inch layer of low carbon organic material such as grass clippings. Next, add a 4-6 inch layer of high carbon organic materials such a leaves. This layer should also be damp. Next, add a 1-inch layer of garden soil followed by an additional layer of dry brown stuff. Continue layering until your pile is three feet high. Every couple of weeks, use a garden fork or shovel to turn the pile, moving the stuff at the center of the pile to the outside and working the stuff on the outside to the center of the pile. Turning the pile is also important in minimizing the chance of having rodent problems. Keep the pile moist, but not soggy. When you first turn the pile, you may see steam rising from it. This is a sign that the pile is heating up as a result of the decomposition process. If you turn the pile every couple of weeks, you will see earthworms throughout the pile and the center of the pile turning into dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling soil.
Compost is ready to use when it is dark brown, crumbly and has an earthy smell. The finished compost will decrease to about 1/3 of its original volume. Compost can then be used to enrich flower gardens, vegetable gardens and to improve soil around shrubs and trees. Compost will offer its best results when it is rototilled or mixed with a spade directly into the soil.
Homeowners who compost play an important role in protecting our soil and water resources…especially the Chesapeake Bay. It also keeps these materials out of local landfills. Yard waste can make up more than half of all trash material in our area. Composting is an easy way to do something that benefits the environment while benefitting your gardens.