Compost Pile Valuable
Is plant debris trash or treasure?
It can be treasure if you don't dispose of it, but rather convert it to compost! Leaf mold has a miraculous ability to hold moisture. To compare, subsoil holds a mere 20 percent of its weight in water and good topsoil will hold 60 percent. Leaf mold can retain 300 to 500 percent of its weight in water. Leaves and plant material can be used to improve growing conditions. Composting is the "natural" way of doing things. Nature has been successfully composting for millions of years.
Compost is a mixture of decomposing and rotting debris which can be used to add fertilizing elements to the soil. Composting is a process which returns plant and animal matter to the soil and completes the natural life cycle. This cycle began when you planted the seed. As the small plant of the seed grew, it took nutrients from the soil to make cells and metabolites. As the plant grew larger, more minerals were required and accumulated. When the plant dies, it decomposes and the "borrowed elements" are returned to the soil, thus completing the cycle.
The advantage of using organically-released fertilizer elements is mainly
one of economics. They are free! Gardeners should realize that organically-released fertilizer elements do not differ in any form or fashion from fertilizer elements obtained from other sources. Organic combinations of elements must be reduced to some soluble, inorganic form before being absorbed by plants again. These inorganic forms are also found in commercial fertilizers. However, the main advantage of fertilization with decomposed organic materials, other than the economical advantage, is that when organic matter is added to the soil, it improves soil tilth and moisture retention. These factors encourage optimum plant growth and maximum yields when proper culture practices are followed.
Basic items which can be used for composting are:
- Grass clippings - Grass clippings are relatively high in nitrogen
and make good compost. Mix green, fresh grass clippings with soil or dry
plant material, such as leaves. Be sure that large sprigs which could root
and propagate are eliminated. A thick layer of fresh clippings usually compacts
when it settles, preventing air from entering the pile and slowing or stopping
the composting process. To avoid this problem, add thin (no more than 3
inches deep) layers of green grass clippings and allow them to dry. Another
solution is to add denser organic materials with grass clippings to prevent
- Dry leaves - These are plentiful in fall and winter. Most leaves compost faster and more thoroughly if they are shredded before being added to the pile. If you don't have a shredder, pile the leaves in a row in your yard and cut them up with a rotary lawnmower. Rake the chopped leaves and add them to the compost pile. Shredding greatly increases the total surface area of any material. The conversion of raw organic material into colloidal humus is accomplished by a series of fermentations. These fermentations consume plant residues like a living fire. The finer the particles, the faster they will be consumed. The faster a compost is made, the better it is because there is less time for the dissipation of valuable gases and the leaching out of essential elements.
- Kitchen scraps - Fruit and vegetable trimmings and leftovers are good items for the compost pile. However, don't use animal products, such as grease, fat and meat trimmings, since they break down very slowly, attract rodents and other pests, and have an unpleasant odor. No one appreciates a rat sanctuary or buzzard roost in a neighbor's compost area! Offensive odors will also develop if the compost piles become soggy or anaerobic (lacking sufficient oxygen).
- Other materials - These include sod removed from the lawn, hay, shredded newspaper and hedge clippings. Don't use large twigs because they break down slowly. Bone meal is a good addition to the compost pile because it is high in nitrogen.
Most people have problems with compost piles when they make them with a single ingredient. If only one ingredient is used, sometimes no decomposition will occur, regardless of additives and techniques used. It is essential to add some nitrogen-rich material, such as fresh or dried manure or commercial fertilizer, because the nitrogen in these materials is needed nutrition for the decomposing bacteria.
If a compost pile is properly made and maintained, an excellent composted material should be ready for use in 90 to 120 days. The compost pile can be free-standing or in an enclosure of some type. The most practical is close-mesh wire ( to 1/4 inches between strands), 3 to 4 feet wide, 9 feet or longer, joined together to form a circle. A 9-foot length will make about a 3-foot circle. The larger the circle or compost pile, the better it can retain heat and moisture. Do not place this circular wire enclosure where water from the roof can drip into it. To build the compost pile, start adding organic materials as they become available, in no special order. Use all organic waste from the yard. Adding up to 25 percent of horse or cow manure or up to 10 percent of chicken manure makes a good, rich compost. Too much manure, however, may cause compost to have an offensive odor if it's not aerated enough or if the composting material gets too wet. Green grass clippings have ample nitrogen if manure isn't readily available.
After the first pile is ready, use some of it to inoculate the next. The pile should be kept slightly moist, like a squeezed-out sponge. Too much water smothers the micro organisms. The compost pile must be aerated. If the compost pile is made of material which does not compact, the pile will have to be aerated only once a month. A tight, heavier pile will require more aeration, but no more often than every third day. The pile can be turned with a garden fork or shovel, but the easiest way is with a compost turning probe. This probe is a tool about the size and shape of a walking cane. It has two wings that fold into a streamlined point when pushed into the pile, but spread open when pulled up. On the up stroke, the pile is torn open, and some of the bottom is brought toward the top. This doesn't require a lot of strength and it's a quick, easy way to aerate a home garden compost pile.
Another easy way to turn the pile is to unpin the wire cage, take the wire from around the pile and pin it back together, now empty, right next to the original compost pile. Then put the compost material back into the wire frame. For proper aeration and composting action, each pile should be turned at least once like this to ensure that the organic material on the outside ends up in the middle of the pile so it can go through the intensity of the heating process. If you have a large garden and enjoy making compost, a number of these wire circle cages can be used. You can keep building them until the first pile is ready, then you empty it and start over. The compost is ready to use when the materials have turned brown. Most of them have lost their identity and the composted material has an earthy smell. Some people think the finished product of their composting should be crumbly like old leaf mold. However, for gardening purposes, it is not necessary to allow the material to completely decompose since final decay can take place in the soil. When compost is added yearly, the soil will become fluffy, easy to work, fertile and will hold soil moisture better.
If your soil is lacking in certain elements, the best way to add them is through the compost pile. Add colloidal phosphate (organics) or superphosphate for phosphorus and wood ashes for potash. Composted organic materials can also be used as a cheap iron chelate (a slow-release source of iron) to remedy the adversities of iron chlorosis, i.e., yellowing plants. Gardeners can make a "synthetic chelate" in their compost pile by mixing 1 cup of iron sulfate (copperas) for each bushel of moist compost. Particles of iron will adhere to the surface of the compost material and will be released for plant use as the material decomposes while it is being used as a mulch around plants or when incorporated into the soil.
Unwanted insects, such as pill bugs and ants, will get in the compost pile. Turning the pile often and keeping the moisture just right so that the temperature reaches up to 140°F to 160°F will discourage them. Making compost is as much an art as it is a science. The best way to learn to make good compost is by doing it and not giving up. Most home garden compost failures are caused by simply keeping it too wet. In a rainy season, you may need to cover the top with plastic, but not for too long. Heap up the center of the pile so it sheds water like a thatch roof. It is absolutely essential that the compost pile be well ventilated so that there is a sufficient flow of gases between the atmosphere and the interior of the compost pile. The soil organisms which break down plant residues and convert them into compost are aerobes, i.e., they must have oxygen to live. If these organisms suffocate and die because of lack of oxygen, the composting process will stop.
The whole point of composting is to produce a beneficial soil additive. Moreover, humus is recognized as an excellent soil conditioner. Besides increasing the soil's water-holding capacity, improving its tilth and aeration, compost also makes the plant nutrients that are already in the soil more available to plants.¶