Let the composting process do the work for you

Story and Photography by Kristi Cook

Of all the amendments one can add to garden soil, compost is the most valuable. Black, earthy compost increases water retention, replenishes nutrients, improves drainage, and can even be used as mulch. Yet, many sources make the process of turning kitchen scraps, garden waste, and manure into black gold seem complicated and time consuming. In actuality, composting is simply helping organic matter do what organic matter does best – rot. Just follow a few simple guidelines and allow the process to do the work for you. 

If you happen to have a few chickens running around, put them to work “turning” the compost once a week or so. They’ll pick through the rubble, gobbling up tasty morsels while adding their own nitrogen-rich manure to the mix.

The first step is site placement. Select an easily accessible spot. If not, you’ll find yourself deciding the trash bin or disposal makes more sense than walking all the way to the compost pile. Another downside to placing the pile too far away is the need to transport finished compost to the garden. Buckets, wagons, and shovels get heavy, so do yourself a favor and place the pile as close as possible to the garden. Done properly, compost doesn’t stink and isn’t “ugly,” so don’t worry about people seeing it. 

Composting can be as easy or as complicated as you’d like. However, to make it as simple possible, select the right ingredients, layer, and cover.

Many people compost in a simple pile without bins, fencing, or other enclosures. The pros to open piles is no extra expense, it’s easy to relocate and water, easy to add to, and leaves nothing behind when the pile is depleted. Cons tend to be more aesthetic, as some think wooden bins or neatly stacked blocks are more attractive. Also, open piles may be slower to heat up and may dry out faster than ones that are enclosed. But the downsides are minimal, and either approach is quite acceptable.

Adding materials to an established pile is as simple as pulling the covering back and digging into the center of the pile. After the new materials are in, place the older material back in the hole and recover.

C-N Ratio
The key to creating quality compost is ensuring the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio. The correct C-N ratio (usually 3-1) allows things to break down quickly, without odor and without attracting varmints. 

Generally speaking, ingredients fall into two categories: brown, or carbon-rich items; and green, or nitrogenous items. The rule of thumb is anything brown, crunchy, dry, or brittle is usually a brown (carbon). Think paper, straw, dried stalks, dried leaves, etc. Green (nitrogen) is provided by green materials, such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps, livestock bedding, and manure. 

While the C-N ratio is important, don’t stress over it. Many resources recommend measuring materials, but eyeballing works just as well. One thing I’ve found helpful is to add more brown when the pile seems too wet and add more greens when it looks more like a pile of leaves or straw than a composting mix of materials. 

If you have access to livestock manure, you’re in luck. Most manures, while considered a nitrogen source, have nearly the perfect C-N ratio without any additional work on your part. If, however, you don’t have access to manure, several shovels of good garden soil mixed into the pile will work nearly as well to keep the proper balance. Again, you want a pile that appears to have a balance of dirt/manure/kitchen scraps and brown, dry leaves, stalks, and straw.

Earthworms are but a few of the myriad creatures eager to do the dirty work of turning kitchen scraps, manure, newspaper, and other greens and browns into nutrient-rich compost.

To Turn or Not to Turn
The time-consuming part of composting is the daily or weekly turning recommended if you’re looking to achieve the fastest compost possible. However, a pile will decompose, even if you never turn it a single time – it just might take longer. 

If you opt for the hands-off approach, start with an airy base layer by stacking brown materials, such as straw and/or corn or okra stalks. This allows good airflow, which in turn speeds up composting. After that, simply layer or mix the rest of the ingredients until your pile is 3 feet high. Top the pile with several inches of straw, which will retain moisture and heat. After a week or so, you’ll find a steaming interior, already breaking down those materials into compost.

Composting can be as easy or as complicated as you’d like. However, to make it as simple possible, select the right ingredients, layer, and cover. Within a few months, you’ll be harvesting black gold that’s ready for the garden.

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