Extension Educator, Horticulture
If your heart rate increases at the sight of steaming compost than you are truly a serious gardener. Compost induced heart palpitations indicate an unrelenting optimism about the future. Who but a serious gardener could look at a rotting pile of stuff and envision sumptuous sunflowers, voluptuous verbenas, and epicurean eggplant.
Compost happens. Organic matter breaks down or decomposes eventually, except of course, when it gets buried in a landfill. The story of the 25-year-old undecomposed hot dog found in a landfill comes to mind.
Organic matter decomposition takes place whether we are around or not. However, as gardeners we can speed the composting process and have the finished compost retain the most nutrients for plant use.
Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic materials (stuff that use to be alive) using aerobic bacteria (ones that need oxygen, not the smelly anaerobic kind) and fungi, but also protozoans, millipedes, beetles, and worms.
Now you may be wondering if you have to go out and buy a bag of protozoans for your compost pile. Compost piles are kind of a "field of dreams" proposition.... "Build it and they will come". There are no magic enzymes or Dr. D. Com Pose elixirs.
Garden soil or finished compost has all the necessary microbes and creatures in it. Managing a compost pile is just helping these guys to do their job by providing the food, moisture and oxygen they need.
You don't need a degree in chemistry to compost. Once you understand the basic principles, the methods and containers for composting can be as diverse as the gardener can be. Composting is no more complicated than baking a cake.
Most of the ingredients for the compost pile will be clippings and plants from the garden and landscape. Autumn leaves may be the largest component.
Some items should be left out of the compost pile such as meat and bones, which can attract rodents, raccoons, cats and dogs. Dog and cat manure should also be left out since it can carry disease organisms. Also leave out twigs bigger than a pencil and rose bush trimmings. Although a well-managed pile should kill most disease organisms, you may also want to leave out obviously diseased plants as well as weeds with seeds.
Some items take longer to decompose such as corn cobs, twigs and citrus rinds. Chopping items speeds decomposition as will mixing the pile once the temperature rises.
A great mix of materials for the pile is 2 parts grass or plant clippings to 1 part leaves. Or just remember 2 parts green, moist stuff with 1 part brown, dry stuff (straw etc.). Layer these in 6- 8-inch layers capped with a sprinkling of compost or soil.
Finished compost is "black gold" to gardeners. Forget buying peat moss to add to soils. Use compost instead. It is a great soil conditioner by loosening heavy clay soils, improving water-holding capacity of sandy soils, adds all the wonderful microbes and fungi back into the soil and adds important plant nutrients. Compost feeds the soil that feeds your plants.
Rate of composting depends on the surface area of the materials added (the smaller the pieces the faster the decomposition), moisture, oxygen, temperature, carbon: nitrogen ratio of added materials, size of the compost pile and frequency of turning the pile. This list may sound complicated. Just remember the mantra….. compost happens.
Fall is a great time to make compost and add compost to your soil. Helpful websites www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/compost http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/homecompost/intro.html
If this seems like way too much work, then go to the Landscape Recycling Center at 1210 East University in Urbana (PH: 217-344-5323). Their great compost is now on sale. http://www.ci.urbana.il.us/Urbana/