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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 (but not dairy or meat scraps) should be recycled as well. Composting, besides being extremely environmentally friendly, is one of the best ways to build fertile, productive soil.

One of the most important factors in making quality compost is to ensure that the compost pile is a nutrient-rich environment for microbes since it's the microbes that work hard to break down refuse and provide the essential elements for building compost.

To ensure you have a nutrient-rich environment for microbes and set the foundation for making rich, quality compost, a mix of both dry and green plant matter is needed. Dry plant matter incudes items such as dried corn stalks, autumn leaves and straw or small twigs. Dry plant matter materials are typically high in carbon. Green plant matter includes items such as grass clippings, spent vegetable vines and vegetable peelings. Green plant matter materials are typically high in nitrogen. Ideally, there would be a carbon to nitrogen ratio between 25:1 and 30:1. As microbes break down all-natural materials, they consume carbon and nitrogen and release plant-absorbable nutrients into the compost. If there is not enough nitrogen (green plant matter), the composting process is very slow. If there is too much nitrogen, an improper pH can result and ruin your compost. An odor problem can also result from too much nitrogen. It might seem tricky to determine the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio, but a good guideline is to simply aim for about one-fourth to one-half of your total volume to be made up of green plant matter.

Microbes also need oxygen and moisture to thrive and turn your materials into compost. Oxygen is supplied by periodically turning 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 again. The process then starts over again and should be repeated so long as turning the pile generates heat. When composting is complete, little heat is generated after turning.

As composting progresses, raw all-natural matter continues to break down. Completed or finished compost has a pH near neutral, smells good and looks like rich, dark earth.

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