Over the years, people have asked me about composting at home for their gardens. So, I did some research on the subject to come up with a simple and easy way.
I must confess that I've been composting at home for my own personal gardens ever since I was a little kid growing up in the hills of eastern Kentucky. My grandma loved gardening and passed her wisdom on to me — and after researching the subject, I'm proud to say my grandma knew what she was talking about.
Here are the simple rules of composting that I've come to rely on.
You want two types of material in your compost: `greens' and `browns'.
First, let's talk about the green materials — vegetable and fruit scraps, grass clippings, eggshells and animal manures (cow, horse, sheep, chicken, rabbit, etc. No dog or cat manure.). The `greens' are high in nitrogen and they also contain magnesium, calcium, potassium and other trace minerals. These are the components that will heat up the compost because they help the microorganisms in the compost grow and multiply.
Now let's talk about the `brown' materials for your compost pile. They consist of dead leaves, twigs, bark, straw, dead plant stalks, paper scraps, corrugated cardboard, untreated cotton scraps and paper coffee filters. These are rich in carbon. Their main job in the compost is to be a food source for soil-dwelling organisms that will assist the microorganisms in breaking down the materials in your compost. They also add structure and allow air into the compost.
After identifying the components, let's talk about their ratio. If you add too much `green,' you're going to end up with foul smelling compost, and if you add too much `brown,' your compost will sit there and do nothing. I suggest starting off with a 4-to-1 ratio of `brown' to `green' and go from there. Of course, you can play around with this ratio. If you notice that it's not heating up and breaking down, add more of the `green.' If your compost starts smelling foul, add more of the `brown.'
Now, let's find a place for your compost pile. I suggest finding a dry, semi-shady spot in your yard that is close to a water source. Once you've found a location, start adding the brown and green materials, making sure to cut the large pieces down to smaller sizes. Also, moisten the dry materials as you add them. Once you've established your compost pile, it's time to cover it. My choice would be a tarp or plastic sheeting. Covering helps retain moisture and heat — two essentials for compost. Covering also prevents the compost from being over-watered by rain. The compost should be moist, but not soggy.
The next step is turning your pile. Every few weeks, give the pile a quick turn with a pitchfork or shovel. This aerates the pile. Oxygen is required for the process to work and turning adds oxygen. Periodically, add new materials by mixing them in, rather than by adding them in layers. Mixing, or turning, the compost pile is key to aerating the composting materials and speeding the process to completion.
When the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use. This usually takes anywhere between two months to two years.
Mike Holloway is a horticulturist with the Denver Botanic Gardens
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