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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.


Composting is one of those topics that seems to have a bit of mystery surrounding it. There are entire books devoted to the subject which can intimidate even seasoned gardeners. If you have never tried composting, it's not necessarily a difficult endeavor. Basically, it can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.

Many people have been composting without calling it composting. If you have ever thrown garden debris in a pile in the corner of your garden and forgot about it, that's a very simple form of composting.

My favorite statement about composting came from a lecture by a retired Extension horticulture educator from a southern state. He summed up composting very simply by saying "Put stuff in a pile and let it rot". Essentially that's all composting is. The decomposing items release their nutrients back into the soil for current plants to use.

I grew up in a family that routinely created and used compost in the family vegetable garden though my parents never called it composting. We always tilled leaves into the garden in the fall, and most garden refuse was piled up in corner of the garden and left until it rotted. But my parents never used kitchen scraps in the garden. I remember learning about building compost piles and composting kitchen scraps in high school, but my parents didn't want one, saying it would smell bad.

Offensive odor is probably the most common excuse I hear from people as to why they don't start a compost pile. If a compost pile is turned regularly, it shouldn't smell bad. Most of the time the offensive odors are generated from bacteria that live in conditions that lack oxygen. If a compost pile is never turned, the oxygen is depleted from the center of the pile and bacteria that thrive in oxygen-poor environments build up, giving off noxious gasses as they help decompose the organic matter in the pile.

There are many different approaches to composting at home. At our house, you will find several methods in use. We do have a commercial compost bin, one that has a crank on the side to turn the compost and hasten the formation of new compost. Supposedly if you are diligent about turning the bin, you can have compost in 14 days. I'm not diligent, and we keep adding new stuff to the bin, so I've never seen compost in 14 days.

In theory at least, that compost bin should be big enough for us to add to throughout the winter months, but we've filled it by Christmas every year. After that, if the ground isn't frozen we bury our kitchen scraps directly in the garden. If everything is frozen, as it was much of this winter, we pile scraps up in the garden and wait until spring to bury everything. It's not the precise method that some books would like you to follow, but it works for us.

We have also found that we generate a lot less trash by composting our kitchen and garden scraps. Since our town charges by the bag for trash disposal, the decision to compost has been a smart financial as well as environmental decision for us.

Some tips for your home compost pile:

  • Keep your pile at a manageable size. A 3 foot by 3 foot by 3 foot pile is adequate for most yards.
  • Layering dead dry material with fresh wet materials, typically at a ratio about 25-30 parts dead dry material to one part fresh wet material. This will help speed the composting process, as will addition of manure or commercial fertilizer in between layers.
  • Bury kitchen or garden scraps throughout the season-- a process called sheet composting.
  • Do not use any items containing meat, bones, dairy products or grease in a compost pile. While they will decompose, they will smell bad in the process and attract local wildlife.
  • Shred or crush items to speed the composting process
  • Avoid placing weed seeds, diseased plants, pet waste, or manure from diseased animals in compost piles. While in theory a compost pile should get hot enough to destroy any harmful bacteria or fungi present, there is a chance it will not. It's best to not risk your family's or your garden's health by adding these items.

Compost is finished when looks like soil. It is a great amendment for potted plants, or mixed in with existing planting beds in the landscape. Most people find there is no shortage of uses for compost around the home landscape.



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