Compost: The Best Soil Conditioner

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image of three compost bins: leaf mulch,

Composting is a way of recycling organic waste materials that you would ordinarily discard. Many questions that are asked are: What kind of organic waste? How old should it be? How much should I use? What works best: leaves, grass clippings, pine bark, pine straw, hardwood chips, or manure? There is really no right or wrong answer to these questions. Generally, the question asked most often is: How do I get started?

Before starting a compost pile, let’s look at a statistic. A typical 1,000 square-foot lawn can produce 200 to 500 pounds of grass clippings each year. These mountains of grass clippings can easily be composted. You also can discharge your grass clippings instead of bagging them. This concept is called grass-cycling. By leaving the grass clippings on your lawn you are recycling the nutrients you added in the Spring and Fall through fertilizer applications. This cuts down on the need for applications of large amounts of nitrogen and other nutrients.

Another common source of organic matter are all those leaves that are bagged up and left on the curbside or piled up and burned. Neither of these methods are environmentally friendly. If you do not want to compost them then spread them in a wooded area because they will decompose rapidly as the temperature increases.

The organic materials most often composted are leaves, grass clippings, straw, weeds (before they have gone to seed), manures, and plant parts from vegetable and flower gardens. The texture of organic material generally determines its rate of decay. For larger material like limbs from trees it is better to run them through a shredder to reduce their size.

So how do you start? Your compost pile will require four things: a source of organic matter, water, a source of nitrogen, and oxygen. Locate the compost pile in an unused part of your yard. Start the pile by putting a 6 to 8-inch layer of organic material (leaves, straw, or grass clippings) on the bottom. Sprinkle the layer with water and add about a one-inch layer of soil. Next, add one cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer and one cup of ground limestone for every 10 square feet of surface area. One or two inches of manure can be used instead of commercial fertilizer. Continue these steps until the materials are used up. If you do not have enough soil, go ahead and pile up the material and add soil later.

The speed of decomposition is greatly influenced by temperature. The micro-organisms that do the work function best at around 90 degrees. Water is a key ingredient, so make sure the pile stays moist. Some even make a saucer-shaped depression in the top of the pile to catch rainwater. A good way to get oxygen in the pile is to lay sticks down and start your pile on top of the sticks. The addition of earthworms adds to the decomposition rate and aeration of the pile as well. It is also important to turn your pile every three to four weeks.

When the compost is ready in about 6-8 months it should be dark brown in color, with a chocolate cake appearance, and it should crumble readily in your hand. By the addition of this organic matter to your soil you are allowing better water infiltration, better aeration, and you are also adding a source of plant nutrients. You can also use compost as a mulch around trees, shrubs, and it works extremely well in your garden as a mulch.

Many gardeners like to use compost bins to keep the compost area organized. There are many different types of compost bins available to purchase. You can even make your own bin out of wire or wood. The way you determine to compost your organic wastes is entirely up to you. But, doesn’t it seem sensible and cheaper to use a readily available source of organic matter in our gardens and landscapes instead of letting it go to waste.

For more information about composting, or if you have other gardening questions, feel free to contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Franklin County Center at 919-496-3344.