Or how to make valuable garden fertilizer out of kitchen scraps, yard debris and old soil.
January 16, 2015
Photos by Betsy Voorhies: Compost Bin, Earthworms
Composting is the sustainable practice wherein organic material is broken down into soil-like material that is highly beneficial to our plants. The process involves using organic materials such as leaves, grass clippings, manure, kitchen scraps, and any vegetable matter that is free of oil, egg shells, and unbleached paper towels. With the help of microbes and other invertebrates, the resulting product is a highly nutritious addition to your garden that will do wonders for the vegetables, fruit, herbs and whatever you plan to grow.
To start composting, you need an area or a container in which to layer your organic material. I use a fence-like compost bin but you can use discarded wooden pallets, build an enclosure with horse fence, chicken wire, or you can buy a ready built composting container from a number of sources. Your local extension office may also sell compost bins. If you make your own compost bin, make sure that it is well ventilated and either open on one side or can be opened so that the mature compost can be removed easily. Compost piles should be at least 3 feet high by 3 feet wide and 3 feet long in order to work efficiently. Composting requires three key activities; aeration, by turning the compost pile; moisture, and the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio. Attention to these elements will raise the temperature to around 130 degrees Fahrenheit to140 degrees Fahrenheit, and ensure rapid decomposition.
To begin, create a stockpile of leaf and grass clippings (mowing with a bag attachment is a great way to acquire these and keeps your yard debris out of the land fill!). Your compost pile is a great place to recycle used potting soil from dead or transplanted potted plants. I keep my organic material in large nursery pots next to the compost bin.
To start your compost; begin with a 6” layer of dry organic material (the leaf/grass clippings and old soil).Next add a layer of green stuff such as vegetable, fruit scraps, banana peels, egg shells and even unbleached paper towels. After every layer, water the pile well and keep it moist for best results. If you have chickens, horses, cows, or any herbivorous animal their manure can also be added at this point.
Keeping a covered pail in your kitchen makes it easy to collect your kitchen scraps. Make sure, no meat, oil, cheese, dairy or anything that is not plant-based gets into the kitchen scrap pail. You can find wonderful pails at garden centers or online at gardening websites.
Continue to add layers of kitchen scraps and dry organic material as described and keep the pile watered so that it’s moist but not wet. Keep in mind; whenever your garden needs water your compost needs water. If you hollow out an area in the middle of the pile, this can make watering more effective. During the warmer months, you should turn your pile with a pitchfork to mix the decomposing matter at least once a week or when the internal temperature has reached 150 degrees. In the colder months, the composting process slows down and you should only turn your pile about once a month. If you have a manufactured bin, follow the instructions included as to how often to turn or rotate your compost.
Good compost will have lots of earthworms that help in the decomposition process and also help to aerate the soil in your garden.
If you follow these simple procedures, you should have beautiful, valuable compost within 2-3 months. Add a layer of compost to your garden and mix it in before planting or mix it half and half with a good soil to start a new garden. Good organic mulch will help suppress weeds and retain moisture in the garden.
Betsy Voorhies is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov