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Composting - Striking Pay Dirt

By Amanda Whatley Owen

web posted October 30, 2017
GARDENING So the number one question from all beginner gardeners is what exactly is composting and why should I take the time to do it?

Composting, is the breakdown of dead plant material.  Basically, composting turns this material into humus.  If you've ever dug for your own fishing worms, then you've seen humus.  It's the black, organic matter that you find your worms in, after raking back the leaves. 

Adding nutrient rich, humus to your garden, will help improve your soil's physical qualities and make it more fertile.  It can loosen up red clay for better drainage, allowing your plant's roots to penetrate and thrive, or it can harden sandy soil to help retain water, allowing your plant's roots to take a good vitamin drink before the water just washes through.   

Composting is an efficient and eco-friendly way to recycle discarded material (like those fern clippings from last week) into a useful, money-saving product, and actually only takes a little of your time to maintain.  Depending on the size of your garden, you can save hundreds of dollars a year by not having to purchase as many bags of soil and fertilizer.  

If I've convinced you that it's worth a try, and you would like to start composting, then you have a couple of ways you can go about it.  Basically, the decorative way or non-decorative way. 

If you like have a neat, well-organized garden, and do not want to dedicate space for a compost pile, or maybe yours is a smaller garden with limited space, then perhaps, something like a tumbler or a compost bin would be ideal for you. 

Bins and tumblers are not hard to find at all.  They can be purchased at most home improvement stores, or on Amazon.  The bins are usually a 3'x3' black plastic square with small vents  The tumbler is a black tub on a stand with a crank on the side.  Of course, the benefits to having these, compared to a compost pile in the yard, is the neatness of it.  Having a crank on the tumbler gives it the extra benefit of making it super easy to rotate your compost daily with little effort.  If you choose to just have a pile at the back of the yard, I would recommend placing it under a tree to prevent the pile from getting soaked when it rains. 

Once, you've decided on your spot, now is the time to create a pile. 

A few things that you can add to your pile are, clippings from plants and shrubs, coffee grounds, grass clippings, soil, sod, leaves, fruit pulp, citrus peels, sawdust, wood chips, or wood ash. 

If you have a lot of acid-loving plants you can add azalea blooms and pine straw to the pile for a more acidic compost. You want your pile to have equal amounts of green and brown materials.  A few things you do not want to add to your pile would be meat, bones, and dairy as they do not decay quick enough and can cause animals, bugs and odor.

Correctly done, a compost pile will decay within a week, and have no smell. Each day for one week take a shovel or pitchfork and rotate your pile creating some airflow.  Some folks put metal pipes in their piles to help them gauge the progress of decomposition.  When the pile is still simmering the pipe will be hot to the touch.  Closer to the end of the week, the pipe will only be warm as the decay is finishing up.  Eventually, the pipe will grow cooler indicating the process is complete.

Once your pile is done, sift the compost into 5 gallon buckets.  You will have a few chunky pieces, but just toss those back in the compost pile for round two.  You can stack your buckets in a cool, dry area and have them ready to go.  Now you won't be running to the store for soil every time you plant.

It's important to note that your compost pile does change with the season.  Fall and winter's freezing temperatures can slow the process of composting and too much moisture during this time can cause problems. Cover open compost piles with plastic to protect them from rain and snow.  Spring is the best time to move, or start a fresh pile of compost. In summer, the compost pile requires daily watering due to the heat which can cause a fire. I once witnessed a brush fire that started due to a pile of clippings and leaves that was never watered or turned.

I'm sure you will be pleased with the overall results found in composting.  Your plants will look livelier and your garden area will become tidier as you process waste material into "pay dirt"!

This is a great time to start prepping beds with compost for fall and early winter planting.  Next week, swing by Mandy's Friendly Garden to learn how to test your soil and know what it needs before you plant.

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