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Cook Up Some Compost

Composting is a great way to make your own soil amendments for gardening. Learn what it is and how to make your own compost.

Recently, I have been to visit my Mom at her home quite frequently. When I am there assisting in the kitchen, I am required to sort through things and save fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea bags and anything else my mother has designated as salvageable. She is a child of the depression, who really believes in the saying, “Waste not, want not.” Additionally, she is an avid gardener who uses these collected materials to help her grow beautiful perennial flowers, hardy shrubbery, great trees, and she churns out enough vegetables to supply her friends and neighbors.

What is her secret? Compost. 

What is this magical garden elixir that I to which I refer? Compost is a rich, dark humus, an end product of the natural decomposition of plant products under controlled conditions. Mom cooks up her own compost in a bin near her gardens and she uses it to build her soil's organic matter, improve drainage, moisture-holding capacity and even fertility around her plants. With a little organization and a designated space for making compost, you can do the same.

You need a space where your compost can "cook". An outdoor space in full sun that is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet out of the way and with good drainage should be chosen. You can build a container for your compost or just buy a bin designed for composting. Any type of structure can be used, including welded wire, fencing, pallets or blocks. Leave open spaces in the sides to allow good air circulation through the pile and the bottom open to the ground.

Once you have a container for your compost, you can get started with the cooking! But what recipe will you use? Almost any organic plant material can be used for composting, including grass clippings, leaves, flowers, annual weeds, twigs, chopped brush, old vegetable plants, straw and sawdust. Avoid composting diseased plants, weeds and seeds, or invasive weeds like morning glory and nutsedge. Kitchen peelings and coffee grounds can also be composted, but avoid adding table scraps because they may attract animals. For best decomposition, it's best to mix a variety of materials. Most often piles are layered with whatever organic material is available at a given time. The smaller the pieces of organic matter, the faster it will decompose. Once a layer of organic matter is added, add a little garden soil or animal manure. This adds fungi, bacteria, insects and worms to the pile and helps speed up the decomposition process.

Keep the pile moist, but not too wet. To speed up the decomposition process and prevent odors, mix the pile once a month using a shovel or spading fork. Your compost is completely cooked and ready when it looks like rich crumbly earth and you can no longer recognize the original plant material. Each time you mix the pile, some ready-to-use compost should be available. When it is ready, it can be added to the soil before planting vegetables or trees, shrubs or flowers to improve soil structure and help hold nutrients and water for use by plants. It can also be used as a mulch on the soil surface, or as a potting soil for container plants. Your completely cooked compost will slowly release some nutrients to the soil, but don't rely completely on it for fertilization. Your plants will still need to be fertilized appropriately. 

For more information on this and other gardening topics, contact University of Georgia Cooperative Extension in Paulding County at 770-443-7616 or find us online at www.ugaextension.com/paulding.

Sarah Walraven March 11, 2011 at 09:16 PM
Is one composting bin okay, or do you recommend having two, each started at different times? How long in our climate do you think it takes for compost to break down from step one? Thanks!
Mary Carol Sheffield March 11, 2011 at 09:52 PM
One is fine, but two is nice! How long it takes to break down really depends on how often you turn it. The more you turn it, the faster the composting will be done. So if you turn it once a week and keep it moist as a wrung out sponge, you can probably have finished compost in about 3 months. If you use two bins, you can have compost at varying stages of completion, but you'll sometimes have varying stages of compost, even in one bin. I myself am a slow and lazy composter, but I find that almost anytime I need some compost, I can find some that is ready in my bin. So even within one bin, you may find that you can extract finished compost from the bottom, before the top (especially if you are frequently adding items to the compost bin).

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