Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Turn Over An Old Leaf? -- How to Compost

How to compost? At first, composting made me believe in black magic.  We'd built a container of stacked recycled bricks, filled it with fall leaves, cuttings and twigs, covered with an old door, and--forgot about it--until spring.  Expecting a nasty mess--the bin was odorless and nearly empty, the bottom quarter filled with crumbly black loam.   Great disappearing act.

Much easier than stuffing those oversized paper bags. 

A local candidate got it right when he passed out large leaf bags in September.  By election day, tidy rows of filled sacks lined the streets with the politician's name prominently emblazoned upon each.  His sister tells how she passed one household only to see her brother's name on the exterior of a neat row of bags, each bearing a crudely  drawn "Universal No" through his logo--but each full of leaves! 

Yard waste is the second most recoverable material in the ecostream, right behind paper. In 1990 the Michigan Legislature required the diversion of yard clippings from landfills.  Since 1995 rural residents and others not blessed with curbside pick-up must compost clippings. 

Recycling decomposed yard waste not only releases over 14% of space in the landfill--it saves strapped municipalities cash by reducing the need for pick up and disposal. 

That black loam found in the bottom of our homemade silo's actually a stable, soil-like product called humus.  It formed as the result of the long term interreaction of bacteria, fungi, and organic matter (yard waste) producing carbon dioxide, heat, water and compost.

Yard waste composting's simple and nearly foolproof.  The most common mistake is to omit breaking up chunky greenery, forgetting to turn the pile, or having too many "greens" or "browns."  Even so, these missteps merely slow the process.  Nature always progresses at any pace. 

Our compost bin was a well used fiberglass pot.  With an electric drill, Bill poked holes all around the base and bottom.  Placed in the corner near the rear garage entrance, it sat on an old fireplace grate to ensure air circulation, making it easy to toss handfuls of trimmings into the pot .  Under the hose reel, water overspills accelerated the process.  Dead leaves provided the necessary "browns."

If the clippings are too large, inverted shears chop them to size.  Some steady handed gardeners invert string trimmers to filet cuttings, but often the filaments are too fragile.

Anything organic or once alive will compost. 

To achieve the best outcome:

1.  Don't mix food and plant material, except coffee grounds can be added if the compost is to used around plants requiring some acidity and nitrogen like evergreens, spruces, and rhododendrons.

2.  Don't include pet waste, used charcoal from the barbeque, glossy colored paper or plants recently treated with chemicals.

3.  Avoid invasive weeds, or plants with agressive seed pods. 

4.  The smaller the particle size, the faster the composting. 

5.  Each weeks turn the pile.  The best tool for this is a garden fork.  Oxygen is essential for aerobic decomposition.  If the contents of the bin become too heavy to turn, create air entryways by inserting the fork along the inside and "popping" the contents upward.  This allows water to drain, avoiding overdecay.  Or, create some downward tunnels to allow air entry. 

6.  When adding new material, scoop over it a few layers of partially composted materials.

7.  Moisture levels are optimal when the contents resemble a "wrung out" sponge.  Too much water creates rotten odors and nutrient loss.  If heavy rains treaten to turn your compost into soup, tip the pot onto its side to drain. If it's sloshing, it's rotting, not composting.

8.  Earthworms are a sign that the balance is good.  Leave them be, or send them into the garden along with the new compost. 

Once it's ready, apply to the garden:

  • If  the supply's limited, place an inch of the compost around the plant, away from the stem.  Remember that plants take in nutrients at the "dripline."  Spread outward to that point, and scratch into the soil.

  • For shallow rooted plants and annuals, just leave the compost on the ground to avoid root damage. 

  • New plants, especially those in areas of limited nutrition like pots and windowboxes, should get a couple handfuls of compost around the outside of their rootballs.  If none is available, tuck in a few handfuls of dry leaves or bonemeal.  The soil will compost on its own. 

  • Compost is always welcome on new or existing lawns, and may be broadcast or strewn about liberally.  
Plants thirsty for nutrients will enjoy a "compost tea" break. Soak a small bag of compost in a container of water for a day.  Pour the solution around the base of the plant.  The uptake is easy on the plant and nutrients reach receptors more quickly.  Hand spreading over soil is a time-release method. 

The previous trustees of our new garden had a far more sophisticated system of composting.  Three large lovely bins constructed of two by eight inch lumber with one inch gaps between sturdy slats await us.  Compost production should advance dramatically after yesterday's wind storm.  Still, the old holey pot made it onto the moving truck.

Organic plant material continues to contribute  richly to our ecosystem even when growth ceases.  The natural and productive cycle of life can't take place locked in a trash bag. 

When next confronted with a handful of clippings and the urge to toss it into the trash can, pause and pay tribute to the natural order.  Opt for the compost bin. 

Mama Earth says thanks. 

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