Beginning Composters Get Set For 'Gardener's Gold'

August 20, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

They call it "gardener's gold," and soon enough this gold will be raining down on gardeners from the skies above: autumn leaves.

You can curse these leaves, or you can compost them.

If you are not composting yard waste and kitchen scraps, now is the time to get started - just in time to take advantage of Mother Nature's seasonal gift.

Mike Ather lectures on composting and other soil issues for Gardener's Supply Co. in Vermont. I asked him to answer some basic questions for the beginning composter.

Question: Do I need a fancy composter, or can I just use chicken wire?

Answer: Not everyone can afford a $170 composter. You can use a plastic bag or you can just build a big pile. But the better composters are the ones that are enclosed. They hold the right amount of moisture.

The size of your composter or your compost pile has to be big enough for the process to get started. If you are buying a composter, 30 inches by 30 inches by 31/2 feet high is the minimum. If you are starting a pile on the ground, it should be at least 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.

Question: What do I put in my compost pile? And what don't I put in it?

Answer: Put in about 6 inches of grass [for nitrogen] and about 6 inches of leaves [for carbon], then some fresh soil and enough water that if you squeeze the contents in your hand a few drops will spill out. Water is more important in a compost pile than most gardeners think.

The soil introduces the microbes and fungi that the compost needs to get started. If you shred your leaves with the lawn mower first, there is greater surface area for the microbes to act on. Don't let the grass dry out first - then it becomes a carbon element instead of a nitrogen element.

You can add manure, but no dog or cat waste. [Horses and cows are herbivores. The compost pile will not get hot enough to kill off pathogens that might be contained in the waste of carnivores.]

You can tweak it with rock dust, which can add 70 different trace minerals, or kelp meal. Wood chips or sawdust are both fantastic for adding bacteria and fungi that plants need. You can add a bag of cheap compost. That will get things started, too.

Don't add weeds or diseased plant materials. The compost pile might not get hot enough (greater than 140 degrees) to kill the seeds or the diseases.

Question: Should I add kitchen scraps?

Answer: Yes. But no dairy because of the danger of salmonella, and no meat and no oils because they will attract rodents. You can add egg shells, but crush them first. You can add corncobs, but they will take a long time to compost unless you chop them up.

If you are worried about the kitchen scraps smelling, dig a hole in your compost and put the scraps in the hole and cover it up.

Kitchen waste isn't high in nitrogen. In the winter, when I have more kitchen waste and no grass clippings, I buy a 50-pound bag of alfalfa pellets and put in a one-inch layer.

If you need carbon and you don't have leaves, you can add shredded newspaper and sawdust and wood chips.

Question: Do I have to turn my compost pile?

Answer: Turning creates pores for water and for air, and that speeds the compost process. But most of us have other things to do in life. If you layer your carbon and your nitrogen materials and you keep your compost wet, you don't have to turn it. But if you do, it is a good thing.

Question: Will I have compost by spring?

Answer: It depends. If you have the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, the right moisture level and the right outside temperature, you can have compost in as little as three weeks. But a lot depends on when the pile freezes and how long it stays frozen. Freezing actually helps. It bursts the cell membranes and it composts that much quicker. If you do all of that, you should have compost by spring.

Question: What do I do with the compost?

Answer: With new plantings, mix it about 50-50 with the soil. You can spread it on your lawn, about a half-inch deep. You can add it to containers, too. You can spread it like a mulch over your gardens as well.

Question: What does compost do for my gardens? Is it a substitute for fertilizer?

Answer: Compost is not much of a fertilizer, but it does so many good things. It helps control soil temperature and soil moisture. It increases the pore space, and that improves air and water circulation.

Most important, though, it provides a habitat for beneficial fungi and bacteria. When you compost, you inoculate the garden with the fungi and the bacteria that the plants need to feed and to fight off disease and insects.

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