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by Steve Wood, Master Gardener, Master Composter


Whether you're a weekend gardener with barely time to mow the grass or an avid "Master Gardener" composting should be an integral part of your home garden and lawn care program.

Why? First, composting prevents plant wastes from going to the landfill (up to 35% which saves on hauling costs). Second, proper composting transforms these wastes into a free soil amendment. This adds nutrients, enzymes, and beneficial soil microorganisms while also improving soil texture, permeability, water retention, nutrient retention, and aeration. Finally, backyard composting is fun, cheap, and teaches children, as well as adults, about the process of decomposition and the creation of "black gold" compost.

Brimming with nutrients, compost is the stuff of gardening dreams. This "black gold" is the decomposition of your recycled vegetable, fruit, yard, and garden scraps. What you are left with is a rich, dark soil amendment which at its best resembles crumbled chocolate cake. If you only use one organic fertilizer to balance and enrich your soil, it should be compost - and really, it should be enough!

How to make compost:
1st layer - corn stalks, large twigs (for air flow)
2nd layer 3 to 6 inches of dried organic matter or leaves (carbon)
3rd layer 3 to 6 inches of kitchen vegetable scraps, grass clippings, or garden plant materials (nitrogen)
4th layer 1-inch of soil to add microbes

Keys to Composting:
Moisture.   Proper moisture is important to keep microorganisms active. Avoid over-watering the pile, as this excludes oxygen.

Aeration.   The microorganisms need oxygen to break down the organic debris. Regular turning of the compost pile insures aeration, speeding the composting.

Microorganisms.   Bacteria found in soil and compost is the primary microorganisms that break down organic matter. The bacteria in compost starter products increase these microorganisms, speeding the composting process.

Volume.   A 3' x 3' pile is necessary to create enough volume for the pile to heat and hold an adequate temperature. Piles larger than 5' x 5' cannot be aerated properly.

Surface Area.   Smaller particle size increases the surface area for microorganisms to work on. Chopping or shredding reduces particle size.

Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio.   It is important to have a balanced carbon/nitrogen ration. Materials high in carbon, such as straw, must be balanced with additional nitrogen. Green plant materials have a higher nitrogen content, while dried plant debris is mainly carbon.

Don'ts are easy to list.   Never add: " Animal protein scraps/ dairy products " Animal or human manure " Colored newspaper, books, or magazines " Plastic materials " Grass clippings that may contain residential weed killers " Coal and charcoal ashes " Diseased plants Remember "if in doubt, throw it out."