Composting is Food for your Garden

Composting provides you with rich organic matter that does wonders to improve the quality of your garden soil. There are differences between compost and fertilizer for your gardens.  The main difference is that compost feeds the soil, while fertilizer feeds the plant. When you add compost to your garden, you are feeding the good microbes and improving the soil.  Fertilizers, on the other hand, tend to focus on providing your plants with three specific nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. In this article, we will focus on composting.  Your garden benefits from compost in the following ways:

  • Incorporates organic matter to feed the organisms that maintain a healthy soil
  • Enriches soil with nutrients for plant growth
  • Releases nutrients slowly so they don’t leach away
  • Improves soil structure
  • Promotes drainage and aeration in clay soil
  • Enhances moisture and nutrient retention in sandy soil
  • Reduces soil compaction
  • Inhibits erosion
  • Suppresses soil-borne diseases and pests
  • Attracts earthworms, nature’s best soil builders

So what is compost exactly?  Compost is taking food scraps and using it to make living stuff grow. Compost consists of materials like grass clippings, leaves, manure, kitchen waste such as vegetables peelings and eggshells, coffee grounds, and more. These ingredients when combined together will break down over time into an extremely fertile addition for the garden.

There are some key things to know if you are interested in starting to compost.  We have the information here to help you get started.

The type of composter and the location

The first thing you will need is a compost bin.  This can be a premade one that you purchase at a store, or one that you build yourself.  When deciding where to place your composter or compost pile, just about any location will work, as long as it is convenient for you and isn’t next to trees or other plants that will leach nutrients from it.  You will also want to be near a water source to make it easier to add water to the pile when needed.

A kitchen bin

Next, you will need something to put your scraps into unless you will be making a trip to the composter every time you have scraps.  Use a container with a tight-fitting lid to collect compostable organic matter from your household. Be sure to empty your compost pail frequently and make sure to rinse it out well.  Empty compost pails that have been sitting around for several days can start to smell and even compost receptacles with tight-fitting lids can attract bugs if they are left for too long.

What goes in

So, you have your kitchen bin and your composter all set up.  There are a few more things you need to know to help your composter work to its fullest.  Think of your composter as having a series of layers.  The first layers should be what is considered a brown layer, or a layer of dried leaves, straw, non-glossy paper, saw dust or dried plants.  Next is a layer of green or wet items such as your kitchen compost or fresh cut grass.  You should continue this pattern using a ratio of green/wet items to brown/dry items to help your compost break down the way that it should. Aiming for a 50/50 ratio is the safest way to make sure you are doing it correctly.  To help your compost break down, cut up some of your scraps into smaller pieces.  Having a mix of different sizes of items allows for more air spaces, which is important for the decomposition process. In addition to your green and brown layers, you will want to add some activator to your compost pile.  Activators contain both protein and nitrogen, and they will aid the bacteria and microorganisms with breaking down your kitchen scraps into compost. Alfalfa meal is one of the cheapest and most effective activators you can buy.  Other natural activators include blood meal, cottonseed meal, bone meal and barnyard manure.

What to avoid

Now that you know what items should go in, we need to talk about the items that you should avoid putting into your composter.  Meat scraps, fish, grease and oil should not be added to an outdoor composting pile. Not only will they take a long time to decompose, but they will stink, and attract animals to your compost. Manure from herbivore animals such as horse stables and chicken coops is fine, but waste from pets should not be added. When adding manure to your compost, it is important to make sure that it creates a hot environment to properly break down the manure and make sure you have at least 4 months before any vegetables will go into area you are using this compost.  Pet waste contains harmful pathogens, and it will attract animals to your compost. Paper is good to add in, just avoid glossy items and instead use items such as newsprints, paper egg cartons or cardboard.  Finally, the last item to consider is weeds that have already gone to seed.  Some parts of your compost pile may not reach temperatures hot enough to kill seeds.  If you include them, you will end up with compost that can add extra weeds back into your gardens.

Composter Maintenance  

To keep it working properly, you will want to keep your compost pile moist. In order for decomposition to occur, your compost pile needs heat, air and moisture. To test your compost pile for moisture, take some of it into your hand and squeeze. If it drips, your pile is too wet so you will need to add some brown matter. If it feels as dry as dust, add water and stir.  Mixing it up, or stirring the compost is the next step in maintenance.  Composters need both oxygen and moisture to work. Turn your compost with a pitch fork or garden fork once a week and make sure to get all the way down to the bottom.

Compost Gold

How do you know when your compost is ready to use?  Ripe compost should look like good, rich soil. The decomposition process takes a minimum of three months, with a lot of work, and up to three years, depending on the compost materials you start with.  Apply compost once per year here in Chatham-Kent and layer partially decomposed compost on empty beds in the fall, before the ground freezes, and let it decompose further through winter. Fully finished compost can be added to beds in the spring before planting.

If you are not interested in making your own compost, but recognize the benefits or do not have the space to do this, many landscaping companies and nurseries that sell compost in bulk. This is an easy way to get compost delivered right to your garden!

Dig Deeper!

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Backyard Gardens – raised bed or in-ground garden?

How Does Your Garden Grow? – basics of home gardening for food

Container & Vertical Gardening  – how to grow food in small cases

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