Composting creates thriving gardens, plants and lawns with simple organic matter
Composting is an inexpensive way to condition lawns and gardens while also saving money and putting those pesky recyclables to good use. Organic paper, kitchen scraps, yard clippings and more can be collected to bring nutrients back into the earth. Nutrients are added to plants from waste that would otherwise be sent to a landfill to rot. Not only will the act of composting create a well-nourished garden and lawn, but also will assist in the slowing down of landfill closures as a result of congestion.
Plenty of options exist for startinga compost pile, but finding the right option for space and ease plays a large role in how to begin. The most common way to compost is by creatinga pile on the ground somewhere in the yard that won’t be disturbed and can easily be accessed for upkeep. Grand Forks County Extension Agent Steve Sagaser recommends placing the easy-to-reach pile close to the kitchen, if possible.
“Individuals need to find a nice, well-drained area,” he says. “It should be closer to the kitchen to justify running out and putting things in the bin in the 20-below-zero temperatures. Find a discreet location where it won’t be offensive.”
Water and air are vitally important to the process and should be evenly distributed throughout the pile with green and brown products high in both nitrogen and carbon. Starting with leaves, twigs, wood chips or sawdust, dried or dead plants, newspaper and mixed yard waste (lawn clippings, weeds, etc.), create a top layer and follow up with an even layer of kitchen scraps.Sagaser says it’s important to keep grease and animal byproducts (meat and bones) out of the mixture, as it will attract unwanted animals to your pile.
“The important thing to remember as a beginner, the smaller the items you can make, the more quickly they’ll decompose,” he adds.
As the layers are applied, it’s important to evenly distribute hydration and density fora consistent composting process. Continue to water the pile, as needed. This is a crucial step in the creation of a flourishing compost pile and can be the end of the road for all the hours and hard work spent on the project, if not carefully monitored.
The pile will need to be aerated often usinga pitchfork or other useful garden tool. Fungus and bacteria will thrive in the wet (high in nitrogen) and dry (high in carbon) material to create ahealthy pile safe for a garden in which vegetables and plants might be ingested. Sagaser recommends sheltering the compost pile from the cold winds of our region — ideally ina place with sunlight or solar heat.
“If you do it correctly, your compost pile should work for you in the winter,” he says. “The process could slow or even stop if it’s too cold. Site selection is very important.”
Keep the pile covered with wood, plastic sheeting or anything that will retain moisture and keep the pile free from being overwatered by rain or disrupted by animals.
A successfully complete compost pile will become a uniform, dark brown, crumbly product with an earthly aroma. Though some pieces of wood material might remain throughout the heap, this is no cause for alarm, as they can be removed and utilized for a new pile.
“Compost should not be smelly or attract bugs or rodents,” according to the All Seasons Garden Center website composting guide. “If it does, then something needs to be changed.” All Seasons recommends contacting Sagaser or stopping by the greenhouse for some tips.
Time and practice make the perfect product, and while there might be struggles along the way, observe and learn from each situation. Using best judgment to keep the pile at an evenly moist and dense state will bea great start to more advanced future compost piles.
“It’s best to just get started,” Sagaser says. “If you keep working, you can become a ‘composting connoisseur.’ That’s the type of person who wants it done as soon as possible. You’ll get it in six weeks, a couple months or in a year. You’re going to get it.”
Put to use
When the garden calls, a pile of home-grown fertilizer awaits.
Planting in pots: Requires one part compost, two parts soil. If the plant has roots, more compost may be added to the mixture.
Established houseplants: Sprinkle compost on the surface of soil in the pot. If needed, take some soil out and replace with compost.
Garden: When creating a garden, add compost as soil is tilled. If the garden has already been created, sprinkle compost in soil and around plants, tilling a little of the top soil.
Compost can be used for some plants as the sole base for planting. Tomato and pumpkin seeds have been known to do well in only compost, though other seeds find it difficult to be submerged in the strong carbon, robbing them of nitrogen. Testinga few seeds in a small spot of compost might be a worthwhile experiment.
“It all boils down to one phrase, ‘surface area,’” Sagaser says. “The smaller the surface area, the more quickly the microorganisms can go to work on it and develop and produce that nice new compost that you can use for a lot of things in your yard.”
Sagaser recommends using chicken wire to create a good compost space. Pallets are also an inexpensive option, often found free of charge from various businesses. The separation between the boards of a pallet also offers natural aeration, which requires less stirring of the compost pile by the grower.
Rather than digging a space in the yard for a simple compost heap, bins and boxes are a great solution for gardeners with minimal yard space or for those looking to create a more discreet location. They are also quite handy for gardeners living in colder climes who might need more protection over the outdoor laboratory, keeping freezing temperatures, frost, snow and wind from interfering with the process.
A compost bin, or compost digester as it is often called, is an enclosed contraption that allows for continued collecting of household waste throughout the colder months. Another option is a compost tumbler, an efficient bin that acts as an insulator, keeping the microbes aerated and active. The enclosed tumbler is a beneficial system for speeding up the composting process —allowing for year-round access — and is inaccessible by rodents and other critters.
Worm boxes are also a handy solution for yearround composting. The box provides the environment needed to keep worms active, converting food scraps and organic waste into soil for gardens and plants. The large bin is similar to a large antique trunk, with an easy-open lid. Available in plastic and cedar wood, these boxes house the specific worms, which can be ordered from numerous websites, for ingestion and breakdown of the goods placed in the box. Eating one pound of waste per day, these worms will increase the speed at which the composting process takes place. Though aeration and hydration will still need to be maintained, it’s nice to know there are assistants taking care of the process day and night.
Various other methods have been used for composting, often tested by gardeners and found to be helpful based on garden location and need.
“The important thing is to not get too hung up on the type of container. Just get started,” Sagaser says. “It’s going to happen, and you’ll become more proficient at it the more frequently and more quickly you do it.”
Through trial and error, the composting gardener will learn what is best for each circumstance. More suggestions and experienced gardener feedback can be found across the Internet, through the local garden centers and even the area extension office. For more information on composting in the region, visit: www.ndhealth.gov or www.ag.ndsu.edu.
Start the first compost pile with a size of 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep. This size is more manageable for the beginning composter.
Only add biodegradable paper products to the pile. Avoid meat scraps and plastic.
Advanced composters can create “gourmet” compost, the correct blend of nitrogen and carbon, kept moist and fluffed regularly. The pile will heat up to 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperatures kill most weed seeds and speed up the decomposition process so the compost is ready in two to three months.
Noticea bad odor? The pile is not getting enough air. Try adding dry material if the pile is too wet and aerate the pile.
If the center of the pile is dry, there’s not enough water in the compost. Add moisture and turn the pile to aerate.
When the compost is damp and warm only in the middle, the pile is too small. Add more layers and spread evenly for an equal nitrogen and carbon ratio.
If the heap is damp and sweet-smelling, but will not heat up, the pile lacks nitrogen. Mix in a green source like grass clippings, coffee grounds or food scraps.