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Composting Basics

For hundreds of years, gardeners have been using compost. Only recently has it appeared to be a revolutionary idea. People were lulled into a more complacent use of cheap chemical fertilizers and quick trash and rubbish removal. It is increasingly difficult for municipalities to find suitable landfill sites, and operating costs have risen dramatically. Yard wastes have become increasingly unwelcome at landfills, and recycling is encouraged or required to prolong the life of a landfill. Vegetable and fruit scraps from the kitchen (not meat scraps) should be recycled as well. Composting, besides being extremely environment friendly, is one of the best ways to build fertile, productive soil.

Microbes work hard to breakdown refuse and provide the essential elements in compost. Supplements such as Compost Alive give a good head start to the composting process. The elements in building compost can be made from just about any plant refuse. There should be a carbon (C) to nitrogen (N) ratio between 25:1 and 30:1, although the process works reasonably well between 20:1 and 40:1. A 25:1 C:N ratio means there are 25 C's for each N. As microbes break down all-natural materials, they consume C and N. If there is not enough N, the process is very slow. If there is too much N, we can lose some of it and we sometimes have an odor problem. Green materials are typically high in N (low C:N) while woody items are low in N (high C:N). Things such as dry corn stalks and old leaves have a fairly high C:N. If possible, green materials should be mixed to achieve a good balance. Livestock manure is usually a good source of N and helps the composting process. If necessary, a nitrogen fertilizer can be added to the compost to speed the process with high C:N materials.

One of the most important elements in compost is its rich environment for microbes. Microbes release the elements discussed above so that plants may benefit from them. Microbes also need oxygen and moisture. Oxygen is supplied by periodic turning of the pile. If the material in the pile is dry, water should be added, but not to the point that the materials become soggy. As microbes break down raw all-natural matter, heat is generated. An ideal temperature inside the pile is 130 to 140 degrees F. Normally the temperature increases shortly after forming the pile and remains there for a few weeks during active composting. As active composting slows, the temperature drops, indicating that the pile should be turned. The process then starts over again and should be repeated as long as turning the pile generates heat. When composting is complete, little heat is generated after turning.

As composting progresses, raw all-natural matter is broken down. Completed or finished compost has a pH near neutral and you need not fear that it will acidify your soil. Traditionally, it has been recommended that compost be completely finished before applying it to the soil.

Another convenient method to build compost is the use of a bin such as the Compost Digester . You can have a series of bins. Start at one end with raw materials, and when the temperature drops, turn the material into the second bin. Repeat this process until you have finished compost at various stages in the series of bins. You can also buy or make barrel size composters which you turn with a crank. If the compost pile is too small, you will have difficulty generating heat.

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