Compost is an organic fertilizer and highly important soil conditioner made from decomposed materials often recycled from your own garden.
It can be created at home and or purchased from garden centers and nurseries as well as from many landscape and soil supply businesses where it is sold by the bag, meter, trailer load or yard.
It can be used as a fertilzer and/or mulch spread over the soil or dug in to flower and vegetable gardens and around fruiting and ornamental brambles, canes, fruiting and ornamental shrubs, trees and vines. Compost is often added as a top dressing over lawns. It is invaluable to retain extra moisture through drought periods while slowly degrading into the soil where it improves soil quality by adding humus to the soil.
In short, if you want a good garden, you've just got to have compost!
There are lots of ways to make compost.
- Bev McConnell, the great gardener of Whitford uses concrete block bins with removable fronts and holes in the blocks for aeration.
- Stuart Watson of Christchurch prefers low flat bins that are easily turned out for his smaller section.
- There are plastic bins (some that revolve) that some swear by and some swear at because they can become overly wet and sour.
- The great Radio Rema Gardener Ernie Rogers perfected a classic composting system for his 1/4 Acre Paradise by creating three seperate square bins made from old wooden pallets. The front slats of each could be lowered for easy shoveling. The first bin contained fresh composting materials. After these begin to break down, they are turned into the second bin where they continue to cure. Once they are thoroughly broken down they are turned into the third bin where they are ready to use.
- Some Gardens simply place their compostable materials in a pile in the back corner of their section or beneath hedges or trees and let them break down naturally.
- Some people elect to put small quanities of compostable materials into worm farms.
- Farmers often create great piles of manure that are occassionally mechanically turned.
- Sheet Composting is a method where layers of compostable materials are spread out over the ground or beneath shrubs and trees. Sometimes they are covered with boards, cardboard or carpet to increase hearting. But usually the composting sheets of debris are simply spread out and allowed to slowly decompose where they act as a natural mulch as they slowly break down. This way they hold in valuable soil moisture as they slowly begin to enhance and enrich the soil. This is a very 'natural' method very similar to what Nature would do in any forest or meadow.
Manure makes great compost. It's mineral content can be quite variable dependent upon the type of manure used. Here are several different types of NPK resulting from different types of composted manure:
Manure Type Nitrogen Phosphorus Potassium
Cow 6% 4% 5%
Horse 7% 3% 6%
Pig 8% 7% 5%
Chicken 10+% 8% 5%
Sheep 7% 3% 9%
Rabbit 2.5% 1.5% 6%
Home (variable materials) 5% 3% 8%
An important factor in most of these systems is to create a pile of organic debris that is fairly deep but allows air to penetrate into the pile, especially from the bottom and sides. As bacteria build within the center of the pile their activity cause the pile to naturally heat up. It is common for such piles to become quite hot to the touch. They often 'smoke' or steam in cool, damp weather when turned. This literally 'cooks' the vegetative debris and manures that soon break down into crumbly and rich dark brown earth known as compost. To get a nice even compost where all vegetative material breaks down it is often necessary to turn the pile at least a few times so that what was on the cooler out sides of the pile are composted within the 'hot' center.
If the compost pile does not become hot enough, decomposition is significantly slowed. It actually almost stops if the pile freezes during wintry cold. If the pile does not have sufficient aeration or if too many very 'wet' raw materials are added or if the pile becomes overly wet, it can become sodden and rancid. Then it begins to putrify and smell plus any compost often is clod-like and hard. Be sure and turn any pile that appears very wet and begins to smell less like earthy manure and more like rotting garbage or a swamp!
Once the composting cycle is complete, the raw compost can be shoveled and spread as needed. It can also be screened and used as a soil additive in potting mixes where it is often mixed with sand or other drainage materials to further lighten it. Raw compost can sometimes be quite hard or heavy or may be too acidic to use as a potting mix on its own. But when mixed with other ingredients it can add that magic touch to potting soils.
Lime is often added to compost to counteract its tendancy to be of a low pH. But avoid lime if the compost is meant for acid loving plants such as Azalea, Blueberry, Bramble fruits, Camellia, Daphne, Gardenia, Pieris, Rhododendron, etc. Any number of fertilizers and/or trace minerals can also be added to compost either as it is curing or with the final product. These additive can greatly enhance the NPK and mineral content of the compost so that it targets the needs of specific crops or plants.
There is an art to almost everything including composting. A good compost pile should be sheltered from heavy rains that can make it too wet and mucky. Covering it with a piece of carpet or a sheet of pyewood protects the pile. And it must have good air circulation so that the bacteria that actually consume the pile can breath. One way to do this is to build up the pile in alternating layers up to 10cm. deep. First put down a layer of soft sticks or other open, rough materials that will allow air to circulate through the pile. Next add a layer of richer, soft organic matter like kitchen scraps or garden clippings. Autumn leaves make great compost and its much better for our environment to compost them rather than burn them, so in they go!
Then add a layer of grass clippings or soil, perhaps enriched with fertilizer or lime. This layer acts as a cap that holds in the heat of decomposition and helps the pile rot faster. Then start again with another rough layer and continue to build the pile up to 5 or 6 feet. While almost anything can be composted, its best to keep weeds or anything looking diseased in a separate pile that is unlikely to contaminate the garden. Sprinkling lime or phosphate over the pile will further enrich the pile and also stops unpleasant smells.
Sprinklings of lime, ashes or dried blood also will help to keep rodents away from the pile. The 'best' compost pile will need occasional turning. For this effort, if all goes well, your fresh compost will be ready in a few months. It's a good idea to have several piles going at various stages of development in order to keep a ready supply of compost on hand at all times. But if you are just starting out or have a very large garden and need a lot of compost, you might want to think big.
Composting is one of life's little miracles. Who would believe that this turns into this which feeds this! Wow! But getting back to basics, recycling is an important concept in our modern world. And composting is an effective and realistic way for you to do your part and truly become an environmental hero in your own backyard.
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