‘Dear Garden Doc,
I want to begin composting but I have never done it before, do I really just throw all my food scraps in the compost bin and it’s that simple? I don’t really understand how composting works. I’ve read it’s the best way to make fertilizer to go on the garden. But my biggest curiosity is how can I do it if I don’t have the worms that people say are needed. I don’t have worms where can I buy them? What do you think?
Thanks for the help. Terry.’
The soil is the basis for everything that grows in our gardens. By making and applying compost you can produce a soil rich in nutrients and keep otherwise ‘good’ water out of landfill. We can all improve plants with fertilizers, but they will never grow as well as ones grown in a balanced healthy natural soil. Chemical fertilizers should be used sparingly, rather than your go to garden hit. Fruits and vegetables grown in compost will also be naturally better for you.
Composting is one of the most simple, yet misunderstood aspects of gardening. It’s something most of us want to do, but many people find it too confusing in the beginning and unfortunately give up before they’ve even tried.
In my opinion it’s like most things – you will learn more by actually doing it instead of simply reading about it, and there is no one way to do it that’s right or wrong! Most gardeners end up adapting their own methods over time that are suitable to the soil and plants in their garden as well as taking into account the readily available materials on hand. Having said that, there are a few general guidelines to follow to get you on your way. Here’s a quick explanation of compost, the main ingredients and a few tips for creating quality compost mix.
What is Compost?
Compost is the product of the decay of organic matter such as leaves, vegetable scraps, garden waste or any other organic material. Compost is literally the end-product of the decomposition process…in Indonesian simply and appropriately known as compos!
How to Start?
Get a compost bin from a hardware/garden centre. Otherwise using a regular plastic garbage/trash bin can be just as effective. Cut out the base so that the contents inside can physically contact the soil below, you could also drill a few air holes in the side for airflow. To empty out or access the compost, just lift-up the bin and spread the compost over the soil and around the garden and on pot plants. Return any excess or partially decomposed materials back into the compost bin.
Locate your compost
– away from the house
– in full sun to speed up the decomposition process
– in contact with the soil
Compostable materials and elements:
Carbon (the browns) – brown, dead, old and dry. For example; dry leaves, twigs, sticks, sawdust, leaf mulch, dried grass clippings, newspaper, shredded paper, wood chips, wastepaper, tissues, paper towels.
Nitrogen (the greens) – green and fresh.
For example; fruit and vegetable scraps and peels, manures, coffee grounds, tea bags, fresh grass clippings, fresh garden clippings. Make sure no meat or dairy makes its way into the compost or you could easily attract vermin.
Compost should be damp, but not drenched. If your compost is dry, then water it. Every-time it rains open the lid so that the natural rainfall can soak in, replacing the lid afterwards to stop evaporation, lock in the heat and to discourage animals and pests. Most compost bins should operate off natural rainfall and the natural levels of moisture contained within the materials that are added.
Oxygen and air will be naturally present in the ingredients and the building process of adding materials of different sizes. Lightweight materials with large surface areas such as twigs and leaves will assist in the natural aeration as will turning the pile occasionally with a garden fork or by using a compost corkscrew. Without adequate aeration or a with a build-up of one type of heavy material, such as food scraps only, a compost bin will become a stinking compacted mess with little aeration. Air and moisture balance are just as crucial to the decomposition process as is the selection and variety of materials used.
Building the compost
The simplest and easiest mix to start with is kitchen vegetable scraps, green off-cuts, grass clippings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, dry leaves swept from the garden and shredded newspaper all added in a layered effect. Never put too much of any one material and build layers of a similar density, almost like building a sandwich – in other words balance the greens and the browns whilst alternating layers at the same time. Smaller particles decompose much more rapidly, so twigs and sticks will decompose faster if broken up and crushed. A bag of sawdust will really get a compost pile going. Materials that generate heat such as chicken manure will also activate and speed up decomposition! You can also add wood-ash sparingly in between layers.
Don’t add whole fruits or vegetables. If the pumpkin or potatoes have gone bad, cut them into smaller pieces before adding them. If you have unpleasant odours coming from the compost it is an indication that procedures need to be altered, usually either less moisture or more browns – quite possibly both.
The right combination of organic matter – brown (carbon) to green (nitrogen) will make a huge difference. Heat from the sun, occasional watering and turning to provide some oxygen will speed up decomposition. The compost bins that roll/spin are designed that way as it is both an easy and convenient way to turn the compost and get air circulating through the pile, ultimately leading to a faster process of decomposition. Faster decomposition leads to the generation of more heat within the compost, and the cycle accelerates into a positive feedback loop, whereby more heat will then lead to even faster decomposition and so on – that’s why as gardeners we love to see a steaming compost heap!
Compost should be kept moist, but not soaking wet. Flooded compost will drive the worms out. The biggest drawback associated with overwatering the compost will be a ‘stinky’ pile that takes longer to break down, as oxygen is displaced from the saturated pore spaces. Overwatering the compost is akin to over-egging the pudding!
As for the worms…well they should naturally find their own way into your compost along with a host of sorts of other bugs that arrive and leave at different stages, but the worms will always be the mainstay of a healthy compost bin – worms are the intestines of the soil!
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