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A Gardener’s Gold: A Guide to Composting

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A Guide to Composting

A Compost PileComposting may look like science, but it’s really more of an art. There are ways to optimize the decomposition going on in your backyard pile, but no one right way of doing it. There is no master recipe of what to add, only guidelines. Any time you throw organic matter in a heap, it will break down – sooner, or much later. It’s an adaptable process, in that you can do it in the way that best suits your needs. If you’re not concerned with getting the finished product in time for the growing season, you may even just view it as a disposal method, which is still great, since you are diverting much of your organic waste from a landfill, where it would break down anaerobically and create methane and leachate. And you will probably find that you are thrilled with the finished product.

In fact, I find it one of the least intimidating and most fun aspects of gardening, a weirdly creative process (although it actually involves breaking down matter), or a very hands-on science experiment. If I do this to the pile, what will I find when I check back on it in a week?

If you think composting is complicated, try to remember that it’s going on all the time around you – without any help from you. Leaves, dead wood, and dead animals are constantly decomposing in the forest, the nutrients from their tissues made newly available by the microorganisms digesting them. This type of composting is known as “cold” composting – the raw materials are overwhelmingly carbon, rather than nitrogen-rich, so the decomposing waste doesn’t heat up much, as your well-managed pile might with proper aeration and the right ratio of browns to greens.

One of the most important qualities of finished compost is that it’s versatile – it somehow manages to be a good amendment for literally any type of soil. The Garden of Oz site says “compost is the best additive to make either clay or sandy soil into rich, moisture holding, loamy soil.” All soil types can benefit from the infusion of organic matter that compost provides, which improves soil structure and water-holding capacity. Then there’s the matter of its rich infusion of nutrients, leaving plants needing little else in the way of fertility. Plants also get the added boost of better immunology from diseases from the plethora of beneficial microorganisms it fosters.

Adding kitchen scraps to the pile (no meat, dairy, or grease, as these will attract scavengers of the larger variety) is the way to get going. These are your “greens” or nitrogen-rich material. What will make your pile compost, however, instead of a heap of smelly, rotting garbage, is the addition of “browns” – carbon-rich bulk like leaves. The two should ideally be layered in around a 4:1 ratio of browns to greens by volume. While you can have too many greens, however, it’s hard to have too many browns. You will get to a point, though, where the browns may overwhelm and slow down the process.

Once you have a couple layers, a sprinkling of a finished compost or manure (not cats’ or dogs’) helps speed the process along even more.

Of course, many of us are not that organized and just stick to a rough practice of mixing up what we throw on there. Woody material helps provide air pockets so that aerobic decomposition (performed by aerobes, microorganisms with oxygen-based metabolisms) can take place. It also gives aerobic microorganisms their needed dose of carbohydrates. Greens give them protein, while browns provide energy. An occasional shovelfull of good (chemical free) garden soil can also be a good addition to the pile, since it contains many types of beneficial microbes and worms to up the pile’s activity level.

The important thing to understand is that you are simply hosting extremely large populations of bacteria, fungi, and small invertebrates, building a comfy environment so that your little workers can make you the best possible finished product from the garbage you give them.

As far as moisture, the pile should never be soggy, but should always be about as moist as a well-squeezed sponge. In that damp sponge, there would be both plenty of oxygen and sufficient moisture for all kinds of microscopic life to flourish. Microorganisms can, after all, only use nutrients if they are dissolved in water.

Seasoned gardeners often recommend that you build have a composting bin with at least two chambers, so that you can get a batch going and then leave  it alone to “cook” without adding more material (all new material would then go into the second chamber). That way, you get a uniform finished product in a shorter amount of time, untainted by clumps of half-rotted food.

Shredding additions to a small particle size is the best thing you can do to aid decomposition, along with that critical, but dreaded turning of the pile – done most easily with a small pitchfork. Mixing helps bring more unused food and water to the most active microbe colonies at the pile’s core, and keeps browns and greens in balance and moisture distributed evenly throughout.

Aerobic composting means the pile heats up. Under ideal conditions, the core of the pile can get up to 160 degrees F. This sterilizes the product, killing any weed seeds, and deters pests like rodents. (If this has not occurred, compost can also be sterilized with a good shot of boiling water before use.) “Cold,” or passive composting, by contrast, is much slower, the process we see happening on the forest floor. The temperature there never gets very high thanks to the scarcity of nitrogen-rich materials, but dig down several inches and you find that things break down just the same, forming topsoil and returning nutrients to the land.

Compost has traditionally been prized by gardeners for its ability to improve and stabilize soil, fertilize crops, promote higher yields and better pest and disease resistance. Because of all these factors, conversely, using compost as a medium for crop growth can also greatly reduce the need for water and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The environmental benefits ostensibly extend much further, however. According to the EPA, compost application can also be a useful, natural way to remediate contaminated soils, binding to heavy metals and preventing them from migrating into water or being absorbed by plants. The composting process can degrade and help eliminate wood preservatives, pesticides, and both chlorinated and non-chlorinated hydrocarbons in contaminated soil. Many chemicals may be more toxic and persistent in soils, however (including many agricultural chemicals that farmers are being advised to keep out of compost piles – see this recent BioCycle article), a fact that the EPA site neglects to mention.

Composting organic material also generally avoids the production of methane gas and acidic leachate that would result from disposing of it in a landfill, where it would break down anaerobically, or the harmful air pollution caused by waste incineration.

Use your compost throughout the season to sidedress vegetable crops, or screen it for use as a lawn fertilizer.

– Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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