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Sunday in the Garden 3/28/20: Composting 501

Updated: May 6, 2020

Hello, gardeners! This week's topic is one of my favorites: composting! I love to compost for several reasons -- it's SO good for the soil, it's great exercise, and it's made from everything you already have in your yard/garden! Garden compost takes several months to make, but when it's ready, it is black gold for your soil. It's like fertilizer on steroids, and it's essentially FREE! Here's how to start:

1. Create a 3' x 3' container. You can use 4 pallets tied together to form a cube, strong garden wire to form a cylinder, or any other similar container that allows for air to get into your compost materials.

2. Add materials. I start with fallen leaves (browns) and mowed grass (greens). I layer the leaves and grass several times to fill up my container and then add veggie scraps from our kitchen. I stir it all up with my 4-pronged garden hoe, and then add a bit of water.

Materials that are acceptable to add: brown leaves, freshly cut grass, kitchen scraps including eggshells, soft seafood shells, veggie scraps (except corn cobs and hard bottoms like celery bottoms, tomato plants, flower stems, and brussels sprouts stems. They're too hard and just don't break down over time) nail clippings, dryer lint. All kinds of stuff!

Materials that are unacceptable to add: meat, oil, and pet manure.

At no time should your pile have an overly-foul odor. And when the compost process happens, it's actually a pleasant smell. If your pile gets too fragrant, just soak it with water. If, when it dries, it's still too fragrant, add fresh leaves (browns) and stir the pile. Then add fresh grass clippings (greens). Always be sure to stir the pile thoroughly. When it sits for too long, it will be too hard to turn. It should be an upper-body workout, not a herculean task.

3. Stir the pile every few days or when you get a chance. At first, you're just stirring heavy materials. When the compost process is really working, the center of your pile will be warm to the touch. This means the composting process is really working, but it may not happen in the fall. Then, the ground freezes during winter. Just leave it alone and let the snow fall and your pile freeze. In the Spring, when the ground starts to warm, the materials have broken down to the point that the leaves are still recognizable. When it really starts warming up outside, you'll find that after turning your compost, it will feel warm to the touch. This is the magical moment when you know the composting process is working perfectly! Then, when you turn your compost, you'll notice that it has become black soil, with the original materials barely recognizable. At this point, it's ready to add to your soil -- raised beds, garden beds, whatever you want!

Happy Composting!

The video below is at a different location at the house, and uses a different technique, called 18-Day Hot Composting. The video does a poor job of laying it out step-by-step, but basically, we started with a raised bed that grew our cucumbers last year. The 9' x 6' bed was "done" by mid-fall, and we turned the bed after getting vines and weeds out (fall, 2019.) In early spring of 2020, we added compost from the compost bins out back, the result of which was the topic for the first video (above). It was just:

1. Dirt + leaves and grass clippings from 2019 that hadn't broken down much at all. Then,

2. We covered the pile with tarp, let it sit for a week.

3. Took the tarp off, turned the pile, covered the pile with grass clippings, wet pile, cover up.

4. Repeat step 3 every 3 days.

In a few weeks, the compost pile should be broken down enough to add to things planted.

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