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Breaking down the mystery of composting

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • We all know about the benefits of composting for our plants and our garden soil, but it seems that there is lots of complicated advice that needs to be simplified and demystified. The answer for many of us is to make composting easy and let the natural decomposition processes do the heavy work instead of you.

    The real composting work is done by a variety of critters. Some you can see, but most you cannot. All those critters need you to do is provide them with food, water and air.

    There are lots of different ways to compost your organic waste. Some require special equipment and more technical knowledge of composting technique. Some methods only work for small amounts of waste and some can accommodate whatever you have to put in.

    So a good place to begin is by asking yourself about your composting needs:

    • How much time and effort do you want to spend? Do you want to invest in some basic equipment?
    • What are you planning to compost and how much do you have? Kitchen food scraps and garden waste are it, for most of us. A large family and a large yard make a lot more compostable material than a couple or a small garden.
    • Do you have space to set up an area designated to compost? If you have the space for a bin or more, great. If not, no problem.

    Anything organic will decompose. The microorganisms (the invisible bacteria and fungi) that do the big work need to be fed both nitrogen and carbon to do their best work. The most common green (or nitrogen source) compostable materials include kitchen scraps (fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and egg shells) as well as fresh leaves, grass clippings and garden waste.

    It is important not to include dairy products, meat, fish, bones and pet waste. They do not breakdown well and attract unwanted vermin. Do not put in weeds that have gone to seed, invasive weeds like crabgrass or diseased plant material. The seeds and disease will probably not be killed unless you are composting at high heat and will end up back in the yard when you spread your compost. If something has been treated with a chemical pesticide or herbicide absolutely do not put it in your compost pile.?
    Carbon sources are called brown materials, which include wood chips, dried leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper, torn up cardboard and paper egg cartons. If you have your compost in a pile, it is vital to keep your compost as moist as a damp sponge. It is also important to mix it up as often as possible to keep it aerated. Remember that the microorganisms and the big guys (such as earthworms, mites, grubs, flies, etc.) need food, air and water to do their best work.?There are so many compost methods. Each has its own pluses and minuses. Here are a few options, starting with the easiest:

    • Pit composting. Dig a small hole about a foot deep (to discourage pests), put all your kitchen scraps in and cover. Place holes throughout the garden, and renew your soil easily. It takes about three months for decomposition, depending on soil temperature.
    • Pile composting. First, find a good place to put your pile. It can be in sun or part shade. If you have the space, it is great to have two piles. One is being actively fed and the other is finishing its work making dark, crumbly soil. There are several commercial products available to hold your pile. Bottomless, tiered, plastic compost systems with a lid work well. You can add or subtract tiers to make turning easier and to accommodate the amount of waste you have at a time. Barrel-style systems can make turning composting material easier, are more resistant to animals and can reduce the processing time. However, you either need two or a stockpile of fresh waste because you'll need to compost in batches.
    • Wire mesh enclosures. It is cheap and easy to build. It can be tough to work your pile, though, because the wire can be easily crushed or bent. A wire mesh enclosure is totally exposed, so vigilance will be needed to keep the pile from drying out.
    • Multibin systems. Usually three bins are used, which allows you to have compost in various stages of development. Making them easily accessible with removable slats makes your work easier. This is a good system for people with large amounts of waste to compost.
    • Worm bins. They are usually small, compact and fast. You need about a five-gallon plastic bin with a lid. Put holes in the container for air and to let the liquid gold escape. Use newspaper strips as a base for the worms; add kitchen scraps and a handful of red wriggler worms. They need to live in a cool, dry place away from predators.