MOTHER'S Guide to Composting

Learn everything you need to know about building and maintaining a healthy compost pile, including equipment, aeration, turning, and more!

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    Compost is like gold for your garden. Learn the best methods to create rich, fertile compost that will boost your green thumb.

  • compost

Thousands of years ago, some slouched cave dwellers groveled in the dirt and discovered that seeds grew better near the areas where they piled useless cave refuse. I doubt they shouted "Eureka!" but they must have passed the word along, because the idea of putting human, animal, vegetable, and mineral waste into the soil spread to all corners of the world.

A Guide to Speedy Decomposition

Composting can be a fascinating diversion — most of the time. If you're like me, you may find it almost impossible not to visit your compost pile each day, push some of the top material aside, and have a look at what's going on inside. It's sort of an addiction, I guess, but a healthy one as far as the natural order of things is concerned.

The other day a self-sufficient neighbor of mine (who grows almost all of his own food to feed a family of five) was telling me about his father, a well-known figure in New York publishing circles. He is totally unlike his son in that he's completely dependent on the supermarket for food and other necessities. "I don't think Dad has ever grown a vegetable in his life. He doesn't have the time or the space, really. But he has always been interested in gardening. He's been giving me books about it since I was six. And you know, for as long as I can remember he has always had a compost pile in his little backyard!" I wondered what he did with all his compost once it was finished. My friend thinks he gives it to a neighbor who grows championship roses. My dad was a purist-one of the most dedicated composters I've ever heard about.

Obviously, composting has its rewards — spiritual, as in the case of this very literate man, and earthly, in the form of that rich, black humus, which does our gardens so much good. Neither of these benefits, unfortunately, comes without a certain amount of effort. To properly build, water, and turn a pile takes a little work. If your primary goal in composting is to reduce the volume of your leaves, brush, prunings, food scraps, etc., you may be content to pile up the materials and let nature take over the work. If you're after the final product to improve your soil, you'll probably be willing to invest more energy in the process. And once you understand why some of these laborious tasks are necessary, they may seem a little more like fun and a little less like drudgery.

Aerating Compost

Good aeration is essential to the process of decomposition in your compost pile. You can create enough air passages if you give it some thought before you build. Once your pile is four feet high, however, it's a little late. Even if you don't raise the pile off the ground, you can create air channels on the bottom by making the first layer with coarse material such as light brush or hedge trimmings. Adding two to four inches of sunflower stalks also works like a charm because they have soft centers that rot out quickly, providing air channels. You can also build your pile around ventilating stacks made of perforated drainage pipe, which is wire mesh twisted into cylinders, or cornstalks. Once your pile is built, you can try poking a piece of metal pipe down into the pile to open up a tunnel for oxygen, or try one of the tools on the market specifically designed to aerate your pile by lifting and fluffing the material. Be warned: If your pile contains lots of tough, fibrous material, it can seem impenetrable; experiment to see if tools will work for you.

Watering Compost

The amount of water in your compost pile is critical, but you have plenty of leeway in which to work. If the moisture content is much greater than 60%, you run the risk of having an anaerobic pile; if it's much less than 40%, organic matter won't decompose rapidly enough because the bacteria are deprived of the moisture they need to carry on their metabolism. Of course, you can't monitor the percentages, so just try to make sure the materials in your pile are as moist as a well-wrung sponge.

Kathi McCutcheon
10/1/2007 12:00:00 AM

I used my food processor to chop raw kitchen scraps before adding them to my composter. I find these small pieces break down completely in two to three days even when the pile is not particulary hot. Composting is magical to me. I can actually create new dirt and this makes me feel so good. We in Florida are worried about the rising sea levels from global warming. If all garbage were seperated and composted,perhaps we could raise the elevation.

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