Sunday, January 17, 2010

Crazy About Compost

I love the idea of diverting everyday kitchen waste - the endless stream of parings, shavings, peels and pits - that springs forth from my cutting board. And now that I'm home more, there is never a shortage of apple cores, onion skins or the butt ends of carrots, celery or broccoli stalks.

It might seem strange that in my 14 years at Owl Hollow I have never really maintained a proper mulch pile. I inherited one, a simple affair held together by slatted wood, but I never used it much because it was set way back in the overgrown area of the rear yard, prime deer tick habitat.

Two years ago, I took the somewhat daring step of digging a new vegetable plot in my front lawn. (The front lawn, you should know, is quite private and difficult to see from the road unless you're standing at the bottom of the driveway.) I felt it was a smart move since the front yard receives sunshine in abundance, while the backyard is more shaded and enclosed.

So it would seem to make sense to locate a new compost pile in the proximity of the new vegetable garden. It's not going to be anything fancy, and may not be more than a pile of kitchen waste and lawn clippings periodically aerated with a shovel or pitchfork.

(An enclosed bin of some sort would make the whole affair tidier and more manageable when it comes time for aerating. There's a paper company just a few miles down the road from me that last year would regularly put  4 x 4 foot slatted wood pallets out by the road for the taking.  If I could fit three of these in my car trunk, they'd made the perfect sides for the compost pile.)

In addition to reducing my contributions to the local waste stream, starting a compost pile would also enrich my garden soil.  Compost acts as a soil conditioner/fertilizer and will keep my garden growing healthy. Compost adds nutrients to the soil and feeds microorganisms that are needed by growing plants.

For optimum decomposition, the nitrogen-to-carbon ratio needs to be about 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Here's a list of some of the materials I'll most likely be adding to my compost pile and their estimated carbon-to-nitrogen ratios.

High Carbon Materials ("brown" matter)

Wood ashes, a perfect 25:1 ratio (Too bad I don't have a fireplace.)
Fruit waste, 35:1
Leaves, 60:1
Pine needles, 80:1

High Nitrogen Materials ("green" matter)

Food waste, 20:1
Grass clippings, 20:1
Hay, another perfect 25:1 ratio (Too bad I don't have a horse.)
Vegetable scraps, 25:1 (This I have, in abundance.)

Depending on what you've got, you may need to tinker with your compost pile to reach the ideal balance of 25 to 30:1. If your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too high, you can simply add grass clippings; if it's too low, you can add dry leaves or wood chips.

I'll know the compost is "done" when it's a rich, dark color, crumbles easily and I can't distinguish any of the original contributions. Or, as Organic Gardening magazine editors say, "It's ready when it looks and feels like moist chocolate-cake crumbs and smells like fresh-turned earth."

Depending on how good my composting technique is, I could have ready-to-use compost in anywhere from nine months to a year. My success will hinge not only on the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, but also on ensuring that the pile is kept moist (not wet) and turning it once a week.

Organic Gardening also recommends using straw as your bottom-most layer to keep your pile off the ground and away from weeds and small animals. Straw should also be used to top off your pile to thwart pests and keep odors down. The compost pile should be located in partial shade.

Are you a composter and, if so, what goes into your mix?

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