Saturday, August 20, 2011

Building Blocks to becoming self sustaining - creating a compost

Composting is easy for anyone to start and maintain. You don’t need a big space, special equipment or a green thumb. It’s very easy to start and if maintained correctly it is odorless. It is also a great way to recycle things you wouldn’t even consider recycling and makes great fertilizer for your houseplants and garden soil.

Start by selecting your compost area. This could be an area in your back yard without a barrier or you can build a container using pallets, cinder blocks, chicken wire and many other materials to contain the organic matter. Size is never an issue. I use three pallets nailed together for a three sided bin with a piece of plywood in the front about 18 inches high, or whatever scrap lumber is available. Pallets are free at many places and scrap lumber should be easy to find for free. This makes a tidy, eye-appealing compost bin. It’s not recommended to use plastic buckets or containers as compost can heat up if maintained correctly.

Once your compost area is complete you are ready to add materials that will, over time, break down. These materials do not need to be added all at once but instead, added gradually. Compost piles are great recycling bins for organic matter you usually throw away. I usually start with a combination of leaves, grass cuttings or household scrap and soil such as old potting soil in containers. Many of us, including some Master Gardeners have containers that once had a plant in it. The plant died and we haven’t removed the soil. This old, hard potting soil is great to add to a compost pile and can be recycled! I also add in shredded newspaper occasionally. This carbon rich fibrous material will break down over time as well and is an important element in the carbon / nitrogen balance of a compost pile.
What is a carbon / nitrogen balance? Well technically, perfect compost, also known as gourmet compost will have a delicate balance of carbon materials (brown) and nitrogen materials (green) with proper moisture content. While there are many articles on how to make the perfect gourmet compost and even calculators to determine how many cubic feet of each is best for the desired effect….let’s be honest with ourselves. Mother Nature will STILL break down your compost even if you do not have the perfect balance! It may take a little longer and it may not be ultra perfect but you will still have a pretty good end product.

Knowing what you can and cannot put into compost makes a huge difference. Nitrogen items (Green) are the fuel that starts the compost and attracts microbes that start the process like grass clippings, fruit peels, vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, Aquarium water, dead houseplants, green garden debris and weeds. Yes, even weeds can be used in your compost pile but make sure they have not gone to seed or you can reintroduce those seeds when you amend your soil with your compost when it is ready. Carbon items (brown) are things like dried leaves, grass , old hay, and old mulch from your flowerbeds, and limbs that have been chipped up. Of course the best is old hay from a barn with manures! Shredded newspaper and shredded junk mail that is printed on plain paper in black and white is also a carbon source for your compost pile!

Avoid using paper with colored inks as they can contain chemicals that may not be healthy and never use cooked food scraps in your compost pile especially meat scraps or dairy scraps. This will attract unwanted rodents and varmints and can smell quite bad. Never use domestic animal waste either. It’s just not the same kind of manure that a compost pile needs.

To start your compost pile, simply layer your green items and your brown items. I start with the green items in the bottom, top with a little old potting soil and fresh manure if it is available, layer the brown items on top then spray it down until it is damp, not wet, with the garden hose. That’s it! Five minutes work starts the process. Most compost articles say that the moisture content needs to be as wet as a wrung out sponge but in South Texas, damp is good enough for me. Then, over time, you repeat the process and watch your compost pile grow.

In our house, we may have a couple of days of coffee grounds, several pieces of fresh vegetable scraps, some egg shells and other green ingredients that I have gathered in an old coffee container with a lid. I simply walk out to the compost and dump it in. I may also have a few pieces of junk mail I shredded or a newspaper I shredded and I add that in too. Occasionally I add in some more manure and sometimes a little more soil. Wet manure mixed in the compost pile will heat it up and speed up the compost process. I also keep a hoe handy to fluff up the compost when I add new ingredients to mix them in and if it is getting a little dry, I spray it with the water hose. You continue adding both brown and green items until the pile starts to grow, keeping it damp. If it dries out don’t worry about it, just wet it down again when you think about it. Again, Mother Nature has your back.

My compost piles start small with a little green and brown material in the bottom plus some manure. Then over time it grows and in no time I have a pretty good sized compost pile, about two feet high by the width of my compost bin. It’s then that I let it sit and cure for several weeks, fluffing it occasionally and spraying it with the water hose until it is all a wonderful brown, earthy material. While it is curing I start another bin next to it using several scoops of the compost material to start the new bin.

Composting is easy and a great way to recycle! It doesn’t take a lot of time and is very forgiving. It can be prepared all year around and the end result is a wonderful rich addition to your potted plants and your soil.