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Composting is EASY!
Composting is EASY! (It's comedy that's hard)

Q. Dear Mike: We have been trying to compost for years and haven't beenvery successful at it. Our first pile was an open wire bin we threwgarden waste into—and when it was cold outside hid our kitchen waste inthe middle so the neighbors wouldn't howl. After 10 years, we stilldidn't have any compost in the bottom. Now we have a tumbler I tosskitchen waste, yard waste and garden excess into. We've been usingcompost activators but the result after about 15 weeks is black,clumpy, moist stuff. What are we doing wrong? Should we add moreleaves? Spin the tumbler more often?
---Jim & Betty in Mahomet, IL

Mike: I listen to you Saturday afternoons here on our local NPRstation. I really enjoy your program and the obvious care you put intoit. You and "Wait, Wait…" are the best radio of the week! Now, couldyou please refer me to a good source of composing information? I don'tdo as much as I could; partly because our property has lots of shadetrees and partly because I don't know as much as I should. Keep up thegood work,
                         ---Jamesin Northern Michigan

Q. Jim and Betty—yours sounds like the most basic mistake incomposting; way too much 'green material' and not nearly enough brown.A lot of people are sold on composting as something that will recycletheir kitchen garbage alone into garden gold; but that's just not thecase. Fall leaves are the backbone of a composting system.

Shred up any amount of fall leaves alone, put them in a container orjust pile them up, and they will pretty quickly become compost. Mix insmall amounts of "wet greens"—kitchen garbage, pulled weeds, frostedtamata plants and similar stuff—and you will also get good compost,maybe even of a slightly better quality.

If the green material is well shredded and in the rightproportion—about one part green for every four parts shredded leaf orother 'dry brown' (carbon-rich) material, the resulting compost willdefinitely be of better quality and even cook up a little faster thanthe 'leaf me alone' variety. Make it a 'hot' source of nitrogen, likecoffee grounds or barnyard manure, and it will cook up faster and be ofvery high finished quality.

But alas, as many composters have sadly learned, piling up your kitchengarbage simply creates a pile of…well, kitchen garbage. Like we warnevery Fall, you can compost leaves all by themselves and get goodcompost. You cannot compost green waste all by its lonesome and getgood compost. (I was going to say that you can turn your kitchen wastealone into fabulous plant food via "vermiculture"—using a wormbin to make it happen—but in truth, those bins also require the use ofa carbon-rich material in the form of bedding.)
To avoid another very common error, compost should always be made'batch style'. That means thoroughly mixing up your four parts shreddedleaves and one part green waste in a pile, bin,stationary unit or tumbler and then leaving it alone until itsdone. 

Because the raw ingredients shrink down during the process, compostrookies are always tempted to keep adding material to their piles.Don't do this! If you keep adding green waste, it upsets the balanceand stops the process cold. This is especially true with tumblers,which are often referred to as 'batch' composters, because they reallyneed to be filled, turned till they're done, emptied, and thenre-filled with a fresh load of raw ingredients. If you don't want tostore your garbage in a trashcan till that time arrives, you'll needtwo or three composters. That way, your vegetative excess can always gointo the one most recently emptied. Line them up in a row—it looksreally cool!

And sorry, but those compost starters and activatorscan't force a bad load to do what it otherwise wouldn't—and awell-balanced load doesn't need them. At least it doesn't need them atthe beginning. Research has found these products to often be veryhelpful at the end. That's right—although few say so on the label, thebest time for these condensed creams of lil' organisms to be let loosein your compost is AFTER the process is over; to give more life toloads that may have set cold for a spell, or whose organisms may havedied off in large numbers during an otherwise especially excellent'cooking' process.

Speaking of cold, only experienced composters can keep compost cookingover the winter in the North. I can teach you some tricks to get aroundthis, but recommend patience instead—especially for newbies. Thathibernating compost will start cooking again—very quickly in fact—whenthe weather warms up. (Unless it's all garbage, of course—then it'llstay asleep.)

And "Michigan Jim": You got trees, fella—that's not a bad thing! Itmeans you got lots of leaves with which to make lots of compost! Andyou will soon have that (somewhat) ultimate composting reference youcrave to consult—I just finished a big book on composting that'sscheduled to be published by Sterling this fall. So hang in there, truebelievers—Captain Compost is on the way!

Oh, and those of you who didn't hoard leaves last fall but still wantto make some compost this season can substitute shredded flakes ofstraw (sounds like a high-fiber breakfast cereal) or the browned-outremains of last year's plants, like the above-ground growth ofherbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses. Leftover Halloween andThanksgiving cornstalks are also great; just be sure and shred them upwell.

Sorry, but wood shavings and sawdust won't work.

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week ©2006 MikeMcGrath

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