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Compost Questions

Q. Mike: It is my understandingthat it is permissible and sometimes advantageous to include ashes in acompost pile, especially if one's soil tends to be acidic (we haven't
yet tested ours). But my wife thinks it would not be a good idea for meto put any wood ashes on her compost pile. Can you give us someguidelines? Thanks,
            ---David inJoplin, MO

A. David: I don't know how longyou've been married, but sooner or later (depending on the processingspeed of your 'upstairs computer' and/or the comfort level of yourgarage) you will learn that you cannot 'win' an argument with yourspouse. Especially if you happen to be right. All you wind up 'winning'is a chilly dinner, a chillier bed, and 'the look' all winter long. Andif you make too big a deal out of it, even a Missouri winter can lastuntil July.

But luckily you are not right, so you can simply say, "yes dear" and"you were right dear" (the only two phrases a husband needs to know)and go back to having a happy life instead of the one you would havehad were you correct. You are right about wood ashes being a great curefor acidic soil—but not via the compost pile.   

Wood ashes are so strongly alkaline that it doesn't take a lot to upsetthe balance in a pile and stop the composting process cold. You can adda very small amount—wood ashes are rich in the essential plantnutrients phosphorus and potassium—but no more than about a cup ofashes per sixty four cubic feet of raw ingredients (the standard 4 x 4x 4foot pile). If you burn wood for heat, that ain't gonna make much of adent in your ash can.

So get that soiltest done. Or even better, several tests: One for your lawn,another for your veggie garden, and one for the rest of your landscape.Most states offer very inexpensive soil tests thru their local countyextension offices; Missouri's is just $10.You can also buy devices ortest strips thatjust reveal your soil's pH--or cut to the chase and buy your own soiltest kit and go nuts testing everything in sight . ("Hey, Honey--c'mereaminute!)

If those tests indicate that your soil IS too acidic for what you'regrowing (or trying to grow), you can use wood ashes to raise the pHpretty much exactly the way other people use lime. Your local extensionagent will be able to tell you exactly how much ash to use in a givenarea to bring the number up to the desired level.

Oh, and this advice applies only to ashes from a wood stove—do NOT putashes from a charcoal grill, burned trash or other potentially toxicsource into your compost pile. And never ever EVER burn pressuretreated wood or old railroad ties for ANY reason.
Q. Mike: We have two compostpiles composed of just fall leaves (we have lots of trees). We filledthree trashcans this weekend with pulled weeds, and I hate the idea ofsending them to the landfill (we need the room for disposable diapers!)but I don't want to 'contaminate' our good compost. Would it be a goodidea to create a third pile for 'weeds only'? And should we then notuse the resulting compost in our garden?  
            ---Glenn fromWayne, PA

A. A third pile is a fine idea,Glenn!  As is a sixth, seventh and eighth—you can never haveenough black gold! But as we explained in a previous thrilling episodeon this subject a few weeks ago, you can't compost weeds—or any other'wet green' stuff—alone. Compost is made by mixing small amounts of wetgreen material in with lots of dry browns, of which shredded fallleaves are the finest such thing. So a big 'no' to that potential pileof Weedies.

But incorporate those weeds into your compost you should!Weeds—especially grassy ones—are MUCH higher in nitrogen than thekitchen garbage people put in their piles, and a combination ofshredded leaves and chopped-up weeds will create a very high-qualitycompost. As with leaves, chop or shred the weeds into pieces as smallas practical, and then mix everything up well—about four parts shreddedleaves to one part chopped weeds by volume.

Worries about weed seeds surviving the process tend to be overblown,but go ahead and over-blow, because it gives you an excuse to putchimneys in the centers of your compost piles. These rolled tubes ofanimal fencing extending above the top of your raw ingredients willdraw in lots of extra air, heating things up to the 160° thatinsures any weed seeds are incinerated. You'll find all the details inlast year's "Basic Compost Making" Question of the Week (see below).

Q. Mike: My husband has tworabbits in hutches lined with cedar or wood chips to catch their "poop"(for lack of a better term). Every week he cleans out the hutches andthrows away large bags full of this mixture. I was wondering if thatstuff might instead make good compost. If so, please tell me how. Thanks!!!
            ---Tanya inWilmington, Delaware

A. Thank you, Tanya—it's agreat question! (And feel free to say 'poop' on my show anytime—itdrives my poor, long-suffering producer absolutely crazy.)

Anyway, you are correct (another wife who's right—what a shock!): Thatmixture will make a fine fertilizer—one of the best, in fact. Manurefrom small herbivores like rabbits, hamsters and gerbils is very highin nitrogen, and will create super-premium compost when combined withdry brown materials like those wood chips. You can just pile it all upby itself or incorporate it into a pile containing other raw materials.But see if your hubbie will consider switching to a less 'dense'bedding material, like wood shavings or shredded fall leaves. Woodchips can take quite a while to break down.

And as we always like to remind people, this is just forherbivores—animals that eat plants, like the little guys we mentioned,and big ones like horses and cows. Never put dog or cat poop into acompost pile—it simply isn't safe.

For more info (and the answers to the questions you're thinking ofright now), see these previous compost-oriented Questions of the Week:
•    Can I put paper in my pile?: xarticle.asp?ai=451
•    Compost is THE plant food (basic directions andchimney instruction): /category/you_bet_your_garden

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2005Mike McGrath

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