Thursday, October 29, 2015

Make Your Own Soil By Composting

Compost isn't exactly an exciting topic but one that each gardener should understand.  Most gardens, raised bed or traditional, should have compost worked into their soil yearly,  This provides humus (the organic or carbon-containing part of the soil that allows it to retain moisture) as well as nutrients like calcium and nitrogen to the soil and the future plant.  Also, compost allows food scrapes to be kept out of landfills where the scrapes would digest anaerobically, releasing methane (which is a potent greenhouse gas).
Compost can consist of all vegetable matter except seeds, coffee grounds and filters, paper towels and paper plates that weren't used with animal products, and eggshells.  Grass clipping and wood chips can also be added.

Almost all plant matter and some animal matter can be composted.  For the beginner's purposes, just remember, no meat, oils, or dairy products.  You technically can compost herbivore (chicken, cow, horse) droppings but I would recommend against this for the new gardener.  Never compost pet droppings - ever.  These can contain deadly (or teratogenic to a growing fetus) bacteria and parasites that you don't want near your food.  Egg shells can be composted but should be broken into small pieces to increase their surface area as they do take time to decompose.

You can compost really all plant matter if done properly.  Stems, peels, inedible cores and the like from fruits and vegetables will of course break down under most conditions.  Regarding seeds - these will break down if consistently exposed to temperatures greater than 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  This may not happen in a compost pile but should happen with a tumbler in warmer climates in summer (see below).

As you will likely generate compostable materials throughout the day, we suggest a compost pail with lid right outside the house that can be emptied once or twice a week.  Whenever it suits you (say after a breakfast of coffee, eggs and a banana producing grounds, shells and a peel), take your compostable material to the pail - and replace the lid.  This should be outside the home because eventually it will likely get gnats -which are better left outside.
A moderate size aluminum compost pail - make sure it has a filter and air holes in the lid to prevent anaerobic decay.
Composting will start on its own in the pail but will not progress much - it needs to go to the main compost site.  If you so chose, you can have a compost pile in part of your yard.  This will need to be thoroughly mixed every week or so, and may smell if left longer.  For this reason, we strongly recommend a compost tumbler.  These vary in shape and size but all have a central axis (similar to a spit) to turn, as well as a door and a way for oxygen to enter the tumbler.  They are not cheap - $100-$200, but with limited space in most suburban yards are well worth it in our opinion.

Our trusty compost tumbler has stood up to 4 years of use with only some minor wear.  Our rule is every time we see the tumbler, we spin the tumbler.  
When do you know when the compost is done?  The simple answer is that it will look like potting soil or very rich earth.  If using a compost tumbler, we recommend taking your compost out at the end of summer and working it into the soil after the end of the growing season.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it allows you room for all the fall compostable materials (leaves, grass, dead garden plants).  Secondly, it encourages gardeners to clean their raised beds of that years plants and fallen fruits.  Finally, as some seed have likely found their way into your compost (from discarded vegetables or weed seeds in grass clippings), end of summer use of the compost means most of these seeds will be dead.  Our worst year for weeds in the garden happened after we tried to compost only in the winter and put the compost on in the spring.  Compost is like most things in the garden - only one crop per year, and it comes at the end of the growing season.

Won't you run out of space with all your compost in the tumbler?  Possibly, but unlikely.  Compost tends to decrease in size as it decomposes.  If you find yourself filling a compost tumbler mid spring, we suggest you get a second and alternate which tumbler to which you add new material.

It isn't fast, but composting also isn't complicated.  Stick to the rules, spin your composter regularly, and you will find you don't need to spend money on fertilizer or potting soil.  Also, you may save money if you are charged per bag or pound of trash.  Composting is one way, along with using the Waterboxx PlantCocoon, to decrease the waste and work of growing your own food.  Happy gardening!

If you would like to learn how to grow plants without watering with the Waterboxx, the best resource is the book The Waterboxx Gardener: How to Mimic Nature, Stop Watering, and Start Enjoying Your Garden available here on 

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