Composting 101

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Down and dirty advice to cultivating better soil in your garden

Soil is tricky. It is arguably the most critical component of a healthy garden, and yet it can feel a little overwhelming to try to get a good grasp on topics such as pH, macronutrients vs. micronutrients, and other aspects of soil science. Composting is a wonderful way to skip the headache and get your plants the food they need
(so they can provide you with the foods you need).

There are tons of benefits to composting. Here are a few:

It’s a No-Brainer
Not only is the process of composting pretty simple, but it also eliminates the guesswork of trying to fertilize the right plants with the right chemicals at the right time. Compost is all-natural, and can pretty much be applied to everything (veggies, perennials, shrubs, trees, etc.) any time and in any amount! You can’t overdo it, because the nutrients in compost are stored up to be used by the plants when they need them.

Beneficial Critters
Compost is a great habitat for the beneficial organisms that make nutrients available to your plants. Think of these critters as little factories that take the nutrient-rich compost and process it into accessible, bite-sized morsels of goodness for your plants’ roots to eat up. Additionally, they often provide natural antibiotics, aeration, and water systems to keep your plants healthy.

It’s the Cornerstone of Soil Structure
Good dirt isn’t just about the nutrients it contains; it’s also about structure. If your garden soil is too compacted, too wet, too dry, or too sandy, plants won’t be able to reach their full potential. Compost helps to improve the structure of your garden soil, allowing for good air flow and drainage. These things are critical to happy, healthy plants, especially in our clay-rich Virginia gardens.

Of course, these things are all in addition to the fact that compost is a powerhouse of essential plant food. So how does composting work?

Compost is Made of 4 Simple Ingredients:
Greens—Nitrogen-rich items such as kitchen scraps and grass clippings that break down quickly and provide the energy needed for quick microbial growth.

Browns—Carbon-heavy items such as straw, wood chips, and untreated cardboard. These things help to add air space to your compost pile, because unlike the wet, dense green materials, they are dry and won’t decompose quickly on their own.

Air—Composting is an aerobic process. The organisms working to break down the composted materials need air to breathe!

There is actually a surprising amount of debate over how frequently you should “turn” or aerate your compost heap, but a good rule of thumb for a hot (see below), active pile is roughly once a week.

A pitch fork is a great tool for a manageable-sized compost pile.

Hot? Yes! The process of breaking down the composted materials actually generates heat. If done correctly, your compost heap should reach an internal temperature of between 130 to 150 degrees. You don’t want your heap to exceed 160 degrees though, as this is too hot for the organisms to work. You can get a temperature gauge or an internal thermometer to monitor this, but it isn’t essential.

Water—Those microbes need water to work, too. After piling your compost heap, you’ll want to water it. You want it damp—but not soaked—at all times. This just means that during dry spells, you may have to water it a bit more, and during rainy spells, you may need to add some cover to keep it from getting soggy.

Finally, the How-To for Making Great Compost:
These tips are for creating an open-air compost heap. You can purchase enclosed composting bins at any garden store, but you can also make your own compost containment system using stuff you probably already have laying around: fencing, logs, cinder blocks, etc. A fully enclosed compost bin has some advantages, but a simple three-walled structure and a compost pile on the ground will get the job done.

  • Choose a spot in your yard convenient to where you’ll need the compost, and strip it down to bare dirt.
  • Start with a layer of straw or twigs a few inches deep; this helps with drainage
  • Begin adding your compost materials in layers, alternating green and brown.
  • Add a “manure” material to the top of the pile, which is any high-nitrogen source like grass clippings. This starts the composting process.
  • Cover the pile with a sheet of plywood or a tarp—anything really—to retain heat and moisture.
  • Turn your pile about once a week; you can turn less once your pile is established.
  • In the future, just mix in your new compost scraps!

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