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Composting turns trash into garden treasure

By John Porter

You've heard me extoll the virtues of composting before.  It is, afterall, a win-win situation; you reduce the amount of waste going from your kitchen and garden into the landfill and you get a wonderful soil amendment in the process. 

It is the gardener's equivalent of Jed Clampett's black gold - but while it is valuable in the garden, it won't get you a Beverly Hills mansion. 

One of the biggest benefits to using compost is that it improves your soil texture by making the soil less dense and helping it hold on to nutrients and water. It is especially good if you have some of that wonderful clay soil you find in the hills and hollers of West Virginia. 

Compost has also been shown to increase the number of good bacteria and fungi in your soil. Think of it as yogurt for your garden. 

It adds some nutrients into the soil, but is relatively low in nutrients unless it contains composted manures. Therefore, compost really isn't a replacement for fertilizer or whatever means you choose to add fertility to the soil. 

I would suggest testing your soil (free at Kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/agriculture/soiltest) well after you have added compost to see what you need to add to keep your plants happy and healthy. 

Reducing your waste

Sure, it's easy to pop by any garden center and buy bags of compost. You can even find some made right here in West Virginia by the Grant County Lumber Company, sold under the label Countryside Accents. But one of the benefits of composting at home is reducing the amount of waste you produce from your yard and kitchen.

Amazingly, a majority of the stuff sent to landfills is compostable - yard waste, kitchen food scraps, and even paper.  We can reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill, which in turn reduces the amount of money we have to spend to send it to the landfill. 

Many cities do have composting programs, so that is a step in the right direction. The city of Charleston composts wastes collected from parks and other public spaces, but the yard wastes that individuals put in bags and set by the curb are taken to the landfill. 

Composting basics

A pile of any organic matter will eventually decompose, but we use composting to speed up the process. Not only do we get compost faster, but the process produces heat, which kills pathogens and weed seeds. 

The secret to success is to get everything mixed in the right proportions. When we compost, we are in effect feeding the microorganisms (fungus, bacteria, etc.) that eat the waste and process it into soil. We can actually think about composting just like we do the human diet.

Brown materials, such as dead leaves, straw, and even a little bit of shredded paper provide carbon, which would relate to carbohydrates in the human diet. Green materials, such as vegetable scraps, freshly cut grass, and weeds provide nitrogen, which would relate to protein in the human diet. Just like the human diet, in composting we want to provide more carbohydrates than protein. 

You'll add these materials in layers in your composter, and you typically want to use about three times as much brown as green. Some brown stuff, such as paper or sawdust, has a higher amount of carbon, so you might not need as much.

You'll eventually get the right blend with practice - just be patient. 

Compost bins and tumblers

Sure, you can just pile your starting materials on the ground, but it's beneficial to use compost bins and tumblers to get the job done.  First it helps keep the compost contained, which will make it easier to work with. 

It is also beneficial to have a gap between the ground and the compost, to allow air to move up through the pile.  Air is an important ingredient in compost to keep the aerobic bacteria happy and keep anaerobic ones at bay - they are the ones that produce stinky odors. 

Compost bins can be made from almost anything. You can buy plastic ones, build them out of pallets or lumber, or even just make a circle of wire fence or hardware cloth to contain the pile. 

I would suggest that if you have a stationary bin system, that you have at least two - you will need to turn your compost and it is easier to use a garden fork to flip the pile into another place than it is to mix the pile in place. Several plans are available on the Web for two and three bin systems. 

You'll want to keep the pile size between 3 feet and 5 feet cubed (such as a 4-by-4-by-4 bin) to help with aeration and keep things from heating up too much. 

While they might not have as much capacity as a bin system, compost tumblers can make composting a little easier by eliminating the need to turn the pile - you just have to give the tumbler a few spins. Though you have to remember that you have to stop adding new material at some point so that you can finish your compost. 

The finishing touches

During the composting process, the action of the microorganisms in a properly turned pile will heat up preferably to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  As all of the food is consumed, the temperature will start to fall and the pile should be about 1/3 the size that you started with. 

You shouldn't see any chunks of what you put in, either. If you need to, screening the compost can help remove stubborn chunks. You can build a screen with wire hardware cloth and a lumber frame. At this point, you need to stop turning the pile and let it set for a few weeks to finish. This finishing will help reduce the microbial action in the compost, which is important because putting plants into something actively composting can cause harm, either by heat (killing seeds) or by stealing nitrogen from young plants to use in digesting carbon materials. 

Using some cheap seeds, sow some on a sample of the compost to see if it is safe for seeding. You can also put some compost in a sealed plastic bag to check for doneness. Open it up in a few days and if it smells rancid, then you aren't finished. 

This week's garden to-do list

From the WVU Extension Service garden calendar:

• Seed peppers indoors

• Seed Swiss chard indoors

• Seed peas outdoors

• Plant non-flowering trees and shrubs

• Plant roses

• Set out head lettuce

• Fertilize spring flowering bulbs

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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