Compost: One Man's Garbage Is Another's Fertilizer

September 15, 1991|By Kate Pipkin | Kate Pipkin,Contributing writer

We've all heard of recycling paper and glass, but what about our other garbage? Can that be recycled, too?

It certainly can. It's called composting, and it's a great way to cut down on garbage, create some superb fertilizer, and even help save the earth.

If you've ever thought of making compost, autumn is the perfect time for it and come spring you'll have some wonderfully rich and nutrient-filled topsoil.

There are many ways of making compost. All you need is a little space in the backyard and some garbage.

Composting is the natural process of decay and decomposition in which bacteria and other organisms attack plants and organic material. But there must be proper air and moisture for the process to take place.

Once you've decided on a spot for your compost pile, it's a good idea tocreate a base of some kind for it. Usually, several inches of twigs should do the trick, and a floor can be made with branches.

Many veteran composters swear by special bins constructed to contain the pile. These bins can be square or circular and made of wood, chicken wire, bricks, concrete blocks or whatever you prefer.

According to John Ciekot, director of the EarthPath resource center in Baltimore County, the classic composting approach is to create a pile three feet wide, three feet deep and three feet high containing a mixture of leaves, grass clippings and vegetable waste.

Some recommend covering the pile (but not blocking out air) until it has reached the proper size.

"You can buy a $200 compost bin or you can simply have a pileon your lawn," said Ciekot. "It's good to use a simple enclosure like wire fencing or wooden pallets. Have fun with it."

If a compost pile is too small, not enough heat will be generated and the decomposition process will be stunted.

What exactly can go into a compost pile? Well, just about everything. The only no-no's are meat and fat.These items do not break down easily and could attract animals to the compost pile.

Grass cuttings and leaves are two of the most popular items to go into a compost heap. That's one reason why autumn is a good time to compost -- plenty of material available. Now you'll know what to do with those seemingly endless piles of leaves you rake up every fall.

Other good items for composting include vegetable and fruit trimmings, bread, coffee grounds, dead plants, shredded newspaper, egg shells and even pet hair.

All materials should be shredded or cut to small pieces to speed up their decay.

Most experts also say that fresh manure (not your pet's, though, because it may contain parasites) must be an ingredient in any successful compost pile.

Fresh manure, like cow manure, brings bacteria to the pile, which accelerates the decomposition. Approximately 10 percent of the pile should be fresh manure.

Lou Niznik, a Laurel resident who makes anddistributes videos and written material on composting, said the process can be fun and creative.

"It's like cooking," said Niznik. "You can get the same result from a variety of ways."

One of those ways is by turning the compost pile every couple of weeks. Turning shifts the outer material closer to the center for quicker decomposition.It also allows for distribution of moisture, a must for any compost pile.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the way to test for proper moisture in a compost heap is to grab a handful from the center. If you squeeze it, a few drops of water should appear.

Even though moisture is necessary for all compost piles, decay will take place whether a pile is turned or not.

"You can turn it everytwo weeks or you can just turn away from it," said Niznik.

The compost is ready when it begins to look like topsoil and is dark and crumbly. The average amount of time required is anywhere from four to 18 months.

The readiness of a compost heap also depends on its temperature. Within a few weeks of its creation, the pile should be hot in the center. According to Niznik, it can reach about 140 degrees "when it's really cooking."

Once the compost is ready, it can be usedfor several purposes. Of course, the most popular use is fertilization.

"We put tomato plants in it and got hundreds of wonderful tomatoes," said Niznik.

Most composters, including Ciekot and Niznik, insist their plants, fruits and vegetables are healthier because of compost fertilizer.

"You never have too much compost," said Ciekot."There are bushels going in and a basket coming out. People use it in place of purchase fertilizer. It helps the soil while creating channels for air and rain water. It also adds nutrients and allows a habitat for natural organisms."

As humans become more aware of the importance of preserving the earth, composting is gaining popularity.

Niznik said if composting were done on a much larger scale, the difference would be amazing.

"Right now we're putting so much money into incinerators and landfills, which put poisons into the air," he explained. "By recycling and composting we could reduce the amount of refuse in incinerators by 70 to 80 percent."

Composting is also a way of preserving precious topsoil used by crops.

"We ought to takecare of the earth," said Niznik. "It's the lifeboat we're all ridingon."

For information on videos or written materials about composting, call Lou Niznik at (301) 498-2553.

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