Do you want to increase your soil structure and provide nutrients for your plants? Are you interested in your soil managing water better? Do you crave healthy, robust plants? The answer to all of those questions is compost.
You can purchase compost, but it’s easy to make your own. Turn your food scraps into much needed organic material for your garden and pots. It is a process that can range from simple to complex, your choice. We’ll start with the simple approach first, then increase complexity. Regardless of which you choose, you can practice alchemy and turn organic material into “black gold.”
Three ingredients are needed to make compost:
1) Carbon: Brown things like leaves, brown grass clippings, or finely chipped (and chemical-free) wood/sawdust
2) Nitrogen: Green things like fresh grass clippings, fruit peels/cores/rinds, vegetable scraps, healthy plant material
3) Water: Just enough additional water to moisten- not soak- the above ingredients
Other items you might want to include are coffee grounds, eggshells, and nut shells. Adding dairy products, meat scraps and cooked foods is discouraged for the likelihood of attracting pests and the possibility of icky bacteria developing. Also, don’t put a diseased plant in your compost, as that provides a means for the disease to spread. If you’re exceptionally tenacious, add super-high fiber like sunflower stalks and corncobs, or seeds that are nearly impossible to crack open like avocado pits… they make a grand challenge! (Most of us choose to put them in the trash.)
Here’s compost making at its simplest: pile stuff up and ignore it. Keep chucking material on top, and in a few years the bottom will become organic soil. If that works for you, stop reading. If that doesn’t work for you, keep reading.
If you want it ready to use by June, you’ll have to actively control the decomposition. Start by mixing the contents to increase air circulation, and potentially adding moisture and/or nitrogen. Keeping the compost pile in a structure helps manage the mixing process. Large-scale containers are 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, a great size if you anticipate large volume of leaves in the fall. Pallets* or chicken wire are a simple and inexpensive way provide structure. Smaller or fancier options such as spinning barrels, or vertical containers are available commercially.
Unless you’ve got a container that can be spun, mixing is a manual process. A pitchfork works well to turn high-volume heaps, especially if you can access the heap from the front. If you’ve got a top loading pile, a gizmo like this is a great tool.
Most compost piles in our area have plenty of carbon. After a winter of sitting, some of the nitrogen from the green items may have leeched out. Sprinkling a handful of something high in nitrogen every several inches provides additional nitrogen to feed the microbes that do the decomposition work. We carry blood meal as well as a variety of all-purpose lawn fertilizers high in nitrogen (and without weed killing ingredients) that can boost nitrogen content.
“Where do microbes come from?” you ask. They are present in everything, including your compost heap. If you want to increase the quantity, stop by the store and pick up some compost maker. It can be added dry or mixed with water. Given our arid climate, your heap is likely dry so extra moisture is helpful. It might need even more water than what’s needed for applying liquid nitrogen or compost maker. The goal is for contents to be moist, but not dripping wet. As you turn or layer your compost pile, add water every several inches.
Once you’ve done the initial building and mixing, let the microbes do the hard work. You’ll know they are working if the temperature rises within the pile. You might even see steam on cool mornings. Stir every 2-3 days and add more water as needed. More open containment systems like pallets and chicken wire will dry out quickly, especially around the edges.
After a couple of weeks of mixing a well-activated compost pile, you should see more and more dirt and fewer chunks of recognizable objects. It’s rare to get rid of all of the chunks in one season but you should have plenty of usable material. Sift what you’ve got through a screen of dime-sized holes and put larger pieces back into the pile to decompose more next time.
Most home composters won’t generate enough volume to cover gardens in several inches of organic material. That’s the gold star for our low nutrient soil. However, applying your compost in a targeted fashion can help your plants immensely. Mix in a spade-full (or two) in each hole when you plant your veggies, or add a hefty shovelful to your pots. Your plants will thank you for it!
Compost 301 and higher
You’ll have to do self-guided education, but we’ll offer you some resources. The book that spurred home composting is Let It Rot and is available through a variety of bookstores. It’s easy to read and offers all sorts of information. The good folks at CSU Extension have an on-line article on composting that’s quite helpful and includes a simple chart on addressing common compost issues. Between the two, you’ll be well on your way to creating garden gold!
*We’ve got oodles of pallets free for the taking on the North side of the warehouse, between the warehouse and the tree lot.
A winter's worth of food scraps. It's icky here, but just wait....
"Cooked" compost ready to be sifted.
Chunks that were too large to be sifted. Back to the pile they go!