Composting: Building Healthy Soil
Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter into nutrient-rich soil. It is an environmentally friendly way of disposing of waste while also improving soil quality. In this article, we will discuss the benefits of composting and how to get started with your own compost pile.
Benefits of Composting
Composting has several benefits, including:
Reducing Landfill Waste
Composting reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills, which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Improving Soil Quality
Compost is rich in nutrients that are essential for plant growth, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also improves soil structure, water retention, and aeration.
Composting reduces the need to purchase expensive fertilizers and soil amendments. It also helps to reduce water usage in the garden.
Composting supports the growth of beneficial microorganisms that break down organic matter and create a healthy soil ecosystem.
Getting Started with Composting
Here are the steps to get started with your own compost pile:
1. Choose a Location
Choose a location for your compost pile that is convenient and accessible. It should be on level ground and have good drainage.
2. Select a Container
Select a container that is appropriate for your needs. Compost bins are available in various sizes and styles, or you can make your own with wood pallets or wire mesh.
3. Add Materials
Add a mixture of brown and green materials to your compost pile. Brown materials include dry leaves, straw, and newspaper, while green materials include fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and coffee grounds.
4. Turn the Pile
Turn the compost pile regularly to ensure that it decomposes evenly. Use a pitchfork or a compost aerator to mix the materials.
Monitor Moisture and Temperature
For moisture monitoring, you can use a moisture meter, which is a handheld device that measures the moisture content of a material, such as soil, wood, or concrete. There are also wireless sensors that can be placed in soil or other materials to continuously monitor moisture levels and transmit the data to a receiver or app.
For temperature monitoring, you can use a thermometer or a temperature sensor, which can be connected to a computer or mobile device to record and analyze temperature data over time. There are also specialized devices such as thermal imaging cameras that can visualize temperature variations in a particular area.
Depending on your needs, you may also want to consider devices that can monitor other environmental factors such as humidity, light levels, and air quality. By monitoring these variables, you can better understand and optimize the conditions for plants, animals, or humans in a given environment.
How to Use Your Compost
Composting is a great way to turn food scraps and yard waste into nutrient-rich soil that can be used in your garden or landscaping. Here are some steps to follow when using your compost:
Allow your compost to fully decompose: The composting process can take several weeks to several months, depending on the type of materials you’re composting and the conditions of your compost pile. Make sure your compost is fully decomposed before using it in your garden.
- Harvest your compost: When your compost is ready, it should be dark and crumbly with a pleasant earthy smell. You can use a pitchfork or a shovel to remove the finished compost from the bottom of your compost pile.
- Spread the compost: Once you have harvested your compost, you can spread it in your garden or landscaping. You can use it as a top dressing, mix it into the soil, or use it as a mulch to help retain moisture and suppress weeds.
Use compost tea: Compost tea is a nutrient-rich liquid that is made by steeping compost in water. You can use compost tea as a fertilizer for your plants by pouring it directly onto the soil or spraying it on the leaves.
All the More Reason to Enrich your Soil Nature’s Way!
We are fortunate to have three excellent manure producers next door named Cody, Bueno, and Bugsy. These guys, along with a lovely flock of backyard chickens, provide us with a wonderful source of manure for our garden.
How Does the Process Work?
Four things are necessary: a source of nitrogen-rich plant residues or manure; a carbon source such as straw or coarse plant stems; moisture; and oxygen. If we provide these, the microbes take over and work their magic!
The process is complete when the starting materials have completely decayed into a dark, crumbly substance called humus. When added to the soil, humus improves the drainage of heavy soils, increases the water-holding capacity of sandy soils, and adds nutrients to all types of soils.
If you don’t have horses or chickens nearby, you can use other amendments as sources of nitrogen and carbon. Cottonseed meal and blood meal are two high-nitrogen materials that are often used. These may be available at your local garden center. On the other hand, yard clippings, leaves, and garden waste are typically high-carbon materials. Only about one pound of high-nitrogen material is needed for every 30 lbs. of high-carbon material.
What About Outdoor Garden Bins?
Most gardeners we know collect organic materials in a bin of some sort, to keep the process of decomposition humming.
Our system consists of three bins: two for the fresh, “active” pile (forked back and forth during turning), and one for the finished product. We also keep our pile covered with a sheet of heavy plastic to further conserve moisture and encourage heating.
For gardeners in places like Portland, however, too much water is often the problem, so a bin made of wire mesh would be just the ticket to maintain air circulation and keep the materials from packing down into a solid, oxygen-deprived mess. When your pile is too wet, it becomes a slimy goo, and odors become a problem, whereas an oxygen-rich environment will produce no objectionable odors.
A DIY bin, whether block or chicken wire or some design of your own, is a good, inexpensive way to make it happen. Keep it simple. A compost bin doesn’t have to be complicated.
Backyard Garden Commercial Bins
On the other hand, especially for those in an urban environment, there are many different systems available commercially.
Most are based on a design featuring a tumbling tub in a frame.
Costs and quality vary, so do a bit of research and take into consideration the volume of organic material you produce.
Turning the Compost Pile
Turning accomplishes three things. It allows you to regulate the moisture content of the materials, watering if too dry, and aerating if too wet. It helps “fluff up” the mass, bringing in oxygen. And it helps move material from the outside of the pile where decomposition happens slowly, into the inside of the pile where things happen more quickly.
We simply fork from the full, working bin to an empty bin a couple of times per month. More if the compost feels wet during our rainy season.
If you have a wire bin as described above, just pick it up, leave the waste behind, and set it down close by. Then fork the material back into the bin, mixing and aerating in the process.
Building Healthy Soil Ready for the Garden
Your compost is ready for use when most of the materials have turned dark, crumbly, and earthy-smelling.
You may want to screen your finished material. We place a framed screen over our wheelbarrow and shovel and shake from the bin, returning larger material for further decomposition. This process helps keep rocks out of the garden beds as well.
Composting is an easy and effective way to reduce waste and build healthy soil. By following these simple steps, you can create your own nutrient-rich compost pile and enjoy the benefits of a healthy garden. Start composting today and contribute to a healthier planet!
- What should I avoid putting in my compost pile?
Avoid putting meat, dairy, and oils in your compost pile as they attract pests and can cause unpleasant odors.
- How long does it take for compost to be ready?
Compost can take anywhere from a few months to a year to be ready, depending on the materials used and the size of the pile.
- Can I compost in a small space?
Yes, you can compost in a small space using a compost bin or vermiculture system.
- Do I need to add worms to my compost pile?
Worms are not necessary for composting, but they can help to speed up the process and create more nutrient-rich compost.
- What is the best time to start composting?
The best time to start composting is in the spring or fall when there is an abundance of organic matter available. However, you can start composting at any time of the year.