By Pamela Page
Compost is a dark brown dirt-like substance used as a fertilizer, mulch and soil conditioner. It is produced when bacteria and fungi break down different sorts of organic waste such as kitchen scraps and garden debris.
Making your own compost is easy, and just like recycling of which it is a form, composting is the right thing to do.
Reasons to compost:
1) If you’re juicing regularly, you’re generating lots of vegetable scraps and pulp. Composting puts your kitchen scraps back into the soil and keeps them out of a landfill where they would otherwise create methane, a gas that pollutes the ground water.
2) Compost is a free, efficient, environmentally friendly alternative to high phosphorous chemical fertilizers that also pollute the ground water.
3) Unlike bark mulch, a product often used to improve the soil’s ability to hold moisture, compost does not deplete the nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes.
4) To make bark mulch, you have to destroy forests. To make compost, you use the leaves and stalks of yesterday to help you grow the fruits and vegetables of tomorrow.
So how does compost work?
You are essentially using soil microorganisms to deconstruct kitchen and garden scraps by making a stew that they devour. The stew consists of materials high in carbon and nitrogen since bacteria and fungi need nitrogen to reproduce and carbon for energy.
The carbon comes from well-aged wood chips, shredded leaves, hay, sawdust, cardboard, newspaper or fall leaves – otherwise known as “brown” composting material. “Green” composting material is high in nitrogen and includes green vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, grass clippings, and manure.
You can also throw in hair (human and animal) and dryer lint.
But never ever meat, oil or dairy scraps. No dog or cat manure. (This could spread disease.) No diseased plant materials. And citrus fruits only in small quantities.
Compost can be made in a bin or a pile depending on the size of your garden. You can buy bins online or at home improvement stores.
Ideally, your compost should have a ratio of 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, but don’t panic! This ratio comes pretty close to half “brown” and half “green” by weight, so you can just eyeball it.
On a farm, the recipe is typically 50% well-aged wood chips or shredded leaves, 25% manure and 25% green vegetable scraps and grass clippings.
If you don’t live on a farm or have access to farm animal manure, you can substitute coffee grounds. Coffee grounds have the same carbon-to-nitrogen ratio as cow manure. Vegetable wastes and grass clippings are almost as good.
Some people say you should arrange the green stuff and the brown stuff in layers. Others insist that the key is to mix all of the elements thoroughly. Either way works.
Add water and throw some soil on top to introduce the bacteria and fungi. Turn five times in the first 15 days. Then turn about once a week.
The pile needs ample moisture, but it is best to cover it with a tarp when it rains a lot, since too much water will leach the nutrients out.
If you use a bin, it’s a good idea to keep it open at the bottom so the earthworms can enter. They help the microorganisms.
Compost can be “hot” or “cold.” If you just pile up a bunch of organic material without watering or turning it, it’s called cold composting, and it takes about a year or two for everything to decompose. (That’s what I do.) If instead, you balance the carbon and nitrogen, turn the pile, and water, the microorganisms will reproduce rapidly, and the pile will heat up to as much as 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71C). This is hot composting.
The more you turn it, the more oxygen the bacteria get, and the faster the bacteria works. If you tend your pile well, you can have this “black gold” in four to six weeks. And that’s the other great benefit – especially if you have a large compost pile – turning the compost is a great workout!