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Compost
The Backbone of an Organic Garden

What's in this article?
           What is compost?
           What is compost used for?
           Why should I start composting?
           How can I compost?
                 -Introduction
                 -Compost Pile vs. Composting Bin
                 -Where should I place my compost pile?
                 -Help the decomposers do their job
                 -What do I put in the pile?
                 -Layering vs. Mixing
                 -How do I know that my pile is decomposing?
                 -How can I get my compost quickly?
                 -How do I know when the compost is finished?
           How can I use my compost?
           I want compost but I don't want to work
           Conclusion


  What is Compost?  

     Compost. What does that word mean? We've all heard it somewhere, on the news, in an advertisement, at our local garden supply store - but many people have no clue what compost is. I'll fill you in: Compost is a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land. If I had to name the technique that was the heart of organic gardening, it would be composting.

  What is Compost Used For?  

     First off: what is compost used for? Basically, compost is plant food. It is composed of simple organic compounds - plants used these compounds as building blocks for their tissue. Compost also supplies the nutrients and elements needed to support the day to day functioning of a plant. What makes compost such a great plant food? Compost is the decomposed remains of dead plants. When you break down plant tissue, you get compost. Compost is perfectly suited for a plant's needs because previous plants actually used it - it is the building blocks from which those plants were made. A new plant is just recycling/reusing material from a dead plant. Composting is actually one step of an important natural cycle. A plant grows, building its tissue out of carbon/nitrogen compounds from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air. A plant dies and falls to the ground. The plant tissue decomposes, or breaks down into simple components. A new plant grows and draws from the compounds of decomposed plants to support its growth.

     So, what does all this scientific mumbo jumbo mean to you, the average gardener just trying to grow a couple of veggies? It means a whole heck of a lot! Compost is the backbone of an organic garden. This fact is so important, I think that I'll say it again. Compost is the backbone of an organic garden. If you want to have a successful organic gardening experience, you need to compost. Why is this? First off, remember that an organic gardener does not use any man made chemicals, fertilizers, etc. That stuff is off limits. Now consider your plants, growing quickly and soaking up all the carbon/nitrogen compounds in your soil. Pretty soon, there aren't very many carbon/nitrogen compounds left. This leaves the plants with one option, assembling their tissue from carbon dioxide and the existing nitrogen in the soil. This process is relatively inefficient when compared to using tissue building blocks from earlier plants - compost provides these building blocks. If you do not amend your soil with compost, your plants will be weak, grow slowly, and produce poor yields. But you can fix this situation. If you add compost to your soil, you replenish everything that the plants have taken away. You add the carbon, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus compounds that are essential to healthy plant growth. Your plants get everything they need to grow. But wait, there's more. Compost is a soil conditioner. Not only does it adds essential nutrients to the soil, it also improves the quality of the soil. Compost, also called humus, hooks on to the soil particles (clay, sand, or silt). With hard clay soils that have poor drainage, compost insulates one clay particles from one another. It keeps them from cementing to each other and increases their individual size (clay is the smallest soil particle). Now that the clay particles are larger, air and water can pass more easily through the soil. In addition, compost is able to absorb an extremely high quantity of water. Thus, drainage, water retention, and aeration of the soil are improved. The result is a dramatic decrease in soil erosion, because now the water is being absorbed and retained by the compost/clay particles. In sandy soils, compost is equally important. Sand is the largest soil particle. As a result, drainage is so good that a sandy soil will barely retain any water at all. Compost, because of its excellent water retention, will keep the rainwater where it is needed - near the roots of your plants.

  Why Should I Start Composting?  

     I've just explained why compost is useful as a soil conditioner. But if you're still not convinced, I've got a procession of compelling reasons. Compost will save you money. How can it do this? First of all, compost is made of dead plant matter: leaves, grass clippings, twigs, rotten fruits and vegetables, vegetable peelings, etc. These materials are 30 percent of the garbage that American households throw away every day. By composting you are limiting your trash, and by limiting your trash you limit the money that you pay for garbage services. As I mentioned before, compost is a free soil amendment. It improves and replenishes your soil better than expensive chemicals and man made fertilizers. Use compost and you will no longer need to buy fertilizers at garden supply stores. And for one last reason, the high water retention of compost-enriched soils will help to lower your watering bills.

     The most important reason of all, however, is that compost helps the environment. Compost is natural process. In our world we see decomposition all around us. Leaves fall to the ground of a forest and rot, and the surrounding foliage uses the resulting compounds to support healthy growth. Plants die, they are broken down, and other plants use their components. Because composting is such a natural process, compost is, by nature, environmentally responsible. It limits the amount of material that we deposit in landfills by diverting as much as 30% (that's right, 30%) of our household waste into the compost pile. And by mixing the compost back into the soil, we are recycling nutrients so that plants may reuse them again and again.

  How Can I Compost?  

     Composting is simply accelerating the natural process of decomposition. As I mentioned before, the cycle goes: plant dies and falls to ground, plant is decomposed by microorganisms and other organisms, simplified compounds from the dead plant are integrated into the soil, a new plant uses the nutrients to fuel its growth. All that we have to do is create an ideal decomposition environment, and nature will do the rest for us.

     The first step in composting is to decide whether you want a pile or a bin. Composting does not require a bin; a large pile is just as effective. However, I like bins more because they keep the composting material in one place, a bin looks nicer than a decaying pile of plant matter, and some have nifty devices that make composting a whole lot easier. Again, both a bin and a pile work equally well. If you decide to make a pile, you may want to cover it with a layer of mulch, a tarp, or some other insulator. This will keep the pile warm during cold nights and help retain moisture on hot summer days. If you choose to compost with a bin, you have a ton of options to choose from. You could make your own compost pile out of bricks, wooden pallets, pieces of lumber, an old trashcan, a circle of chicken wire, or anything else that your creative mind can think up. Just keep a few things in mind when designing a bin - you need to be able to aerate the compost and air/water must be able to reach the materials that you are composting. For example, a compost bin constructed like a brick house would be ineffective. Air and water could not penetrate the sides and top of the bin and could not reach the compost. On the other hand, if you positioned the bricks so that there were spaces between each, you would have a workable idea. You can also buy a compost bin from your local gardening center. Store bought compost bins offer a wide range of features. Some of the nicer ones have cranks that allow you to quickly turn your compost, or are shaped like spheres so you can roll the bin along the ground. If you decide to buy a bin, keep one thing in mind. A compost pile, though it may take a little more work, is just as effective as a 200-dollar compost bin.

     You'll want to place your bin/pile in an inconspicuous spot, but close enough to your house so that it won't be an inconvenience to water it, aerate it, or just check on its progress. And you also want the bottom of your compost bin/pile to be in contact with the ground. The organisms that fuel decomposition will enter your pile from the soil.

     There are a host of microorganisms (which we cannot see) and macroorganisms (which we can see) that break down organic matter. The philosophy behind composting is founded on making life as easy as possible for these organisms. These organisms feed on dead plant matter and leave the compost behind as their waste. In order to get quick decomposition, you simply have to create an ideal feeding situation for these little guys. First, we need to understand the organisms that we are catering to. There are three essential groups of aerobic (oxygen needing) bacteria that fuel plant decomposition: psychrophiles, mesophiles, and thermophiles. Each of these groups identifies with a different heat level. Psychrophiles thrive from 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, mesophiles from 80 to 110 degrees, and thermophiles from 100 to as high as 160 degrees. In a fresh pile of organic matter, psychrophiles will move in first. These are the least efficient of the decomposers. As they work, they release a lot of heat. The temperature of the pile rises until it enters the range of the mesophiles. The mesophiles work more efficiently than their predecessors, and the temperature of the pile rises higher. Pretty soon the pile gets hot enough for the thermophiles (literally, "heat loving"), who decompose the plant matter very efficiently and quickly. At this stage your organic matter will begin to break down extremely rapidly. But bacteria are not your only decomposers. There are also fungi, protozoa, earthworms, millipedes, white worms, flies, and a host of other organisms that break down the organic matter. These organisms need three things to live: air, water, and an abundant source of food. Air is essential because all of these organisms are aerobic; they need oxygen to survive. To bring air into the pile, you simply have to turn it, poke it, or move it once a week. Even if you do not aerate the pile, decomposition will still occur, just much more slowly. You also must add some water too your pile. You don't want to drench it; many of the organisms will drown in excessive water. However, the compost should be moist, about as wet as a squeezed out sponge.

     Finally, the organisms need a source of food. There are two basic groups of plant material: green stuff and brown stuff. Restrict your material to plant matter. Rotten meat and other non-plant components will decompose, but they will smell awful and attract undesirable wild animals. Green stuff includes grass clippings, fruit peelings, rotten vegetables, animal manure, green leaves, and any other plant matter that is green. Green materials have a high nitrogen and water content, and will increase the temperature of your pile very quickly. The second group, brown stuff, includes autumn leaves, sticks, sawdust, newspaper, brown grass clippings, bark, etc. The brown stuff is very high in carbon content and contains many of the building blocks for plant tissue. These two groups are combined in the compost pile at a ratio of one fourth green to three fourths brown, or, for faster compost, as high as one half green to one half brown. Beware: If you put in more than one half green stuff, your pile will emit an unpleasant odor. Before you place the materials in the pile, it is essential that you chop them up, scar stems, cut through leaves, etc. This practice provides the microorganisms with an easier entry into the plant matter, facilitating their work and speeding up decomposition.

     Now that you have your chopped up green stuff in one pile and your chopped up brown stuff in another, you face a decision. You can go with the layer system: start with a three to six inch layer of brown stuff on the bottom, then place a three to six inch layer of green stuff, and continue to alternate. Or you could dump your brown and green materials together and thoroughly mix them. Personally, I subscribe to the mixing method - it ensures even decomposition throughout and, in my opinion, works faster. The choice is yours.

     After you've set up your pile, you may begin to wonder: Is my pile doing anything? Here are a couple of factors that indicate a rapidly decomposing pile.

Even if you do not notice these events taking place in your pile, decomposition is still taking place. It's just occuring at a slower, less noticeable, rate. If you want advice on how to speed up your pile, see the paragraph below.

     Remember, composting is a natural process and will happen whether you help it along or not. However, there are many things that you can do to speed up the decomposition (the shortest period needed to get full compost is about 30 days). You can add half a shovel of rich garden soil or already finished compost to your pile. This will introduce the decomposition microorganisms to your soil quickly. You could increase the amount of green materials in the pile. Green materials tend to decompose much faster than brown materials. Another excellent way to accelerate decomposition is to think BIG. Gather as much material as possible for your pile. Make a gigantic pile of plant matter. A large pile has more organic matter for decomposers to break down and retains heat and water much better than a small pile. The outside layers of the pile actually act as an insulator, preventing moisture and heat from escaping. As a result, a large pile will get extremely hot in its center - where decomposition will occur at a tremendous rate. I'm serious about the heat, if you're not careful, you can easily burn yourself. The high heat level is associated with thermophiles, which are the bacteria behind rapid decomposition. Big piles are also good for another reason: Plant matter becomes drastically reduced in size when it is composted. Within one week of decomposition, your materials can reduce by as much as 50 percent. By the time your compost is finished, it is half the size of the original materials. Keep this in mind when you calculate the amount of plant matter that you want to compost.

     Your compost is ready when the materials you placed in the pile have been transformed and blended into a crumbly, humus-rich product. The heat of the compost pile will have dissipated and the pile will be half the size of the original materials. The ready-to-use compost should feel like good garden soil and have a sweet, clean aroma. Finished compost is dark brown to black, and the original materials are indistinguishable.

  How Can I Use My Compost?  

     Compost is often referred to as brown gold - a nickname that I feel is very appropriate. Finished compost is invaluable to an organic garden. Your compost is nutrient rich and ready to juice up your garden soil. You can spread the compost over your garden (annual and vegetable beds) and turn over the soil, integrating the compost into your beds. The compost will instantly improve the water retention, aeration, and nutrient count of your soil. It will promote strong roots, attractive and healthy foliage, will aid in resistance to diseases and insects, and will increase and improve the quality of your vegetable and fruit yields. Another option is to spread the compost around your trees and shrubs as mulch. Its dark color makes it one of the more attractive mulching materials. For more information on mulch, click here. You could also use the compost to make potting mixes for indoor and outdoor plants. You do not have to pasteurize the compost, simply filter out the larger pieces and mix it with sand, peat moss, or other amendments. If you are planting a new lawn, dig in compost six inches deep to ensure low water demand and green grass all summer long. For trees, avoid adding compost directly to the planting hole - roots will tend to ball up inside the hole rather than branching out. Instead, work compost into the top inch of the soil around the tree and bore plugs of compost into the soil around the drip line. For an easy-to-use liquid fertilizer you can make compost tea. Soak a cloth bag filled with compost in a watering can or barrel for a couple of days. Dilute the resulting solution to a weak tea color, and water your plants with it when you feel that they need a quick burst of nutrients. Reuse your compost "tea bag" a few times, and then dig the leftover material into your garden.



  I Want Compost but I Don't Want to Work  

     If you want all of these benefits without the work, there are options. First, you can be a lazy composter. To do this, just throw all your materials into a pile and let it sit. This method can take more than a year, but you will get compost eventually. You can also buy humus/compost from your local garden supply store. If you're lucky, your district or county may operate composting facilities. In that case, just drive your car up to one of these locations and pick up some free compost.



  Conclusion  

     Decomposition is a natural process. When we compost, we are just speeding up decomposition. The resulting compost can be considered "brown gold"; it will instantly rejuvenate your soil and plants. If you have an organic garden, you should seriously consider compost - it's the backbone of any organic gardening experience.



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