Everything that lives, dies. Everything that dies decomposes and releases minerals and nutrients to feed the soil.
In nature, organic materials decompose and nutrients are released into the soil to be taken up by surrounding plants. In the forest, tree leaves and other organic materials fall to the ground and over time they decompose with the help of macro-organisms (insects, worms, snails etc.) and microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) to produce nutrient-rich organic material that can be quickly taken up by the surrounding plants. This organic process improves soil structure by lightening the soil to allow water and air to penetrate the soil surface and reach the roots of surrounding plants.
Vegetable gardens are a very unnatural situation. In our vegetable garden, plants grown in a very different way than their original ancestors did. Our vegetables, for the most part, have to complete their life cycle in just one season. Most are started from seed, and in just one season they grow to maturity and are then harvested, leaving the soil barren until the following growing season.
In order to produce a healthy crop, plants must have a nutritious organic soil. The best way to improve vegetable soil is through the addition of organic matter. Several types of organic materials can be added to improve soils. Simply adding peat, a naturally occurring organic material, can easily improve soil structure. Peat helps to lighten the soil and improve aeration and water movement through the soil. Peat acts as a sponge to hold moisture and nutrients for eventual uptake by plants. Peat, however, is nutrient poor and therefore does not give plants any of the food needed for healthy growth.
By far the best addition to improve a vegetable garden soil is compost. Compost is a result of the process of breaking down organic materials, thereby unlocking rich minerals and nutrients and making them available for uptake by plants.
Composting your kitchen and garden wastes does not have to be expensive or inconvenient. It can be as simple as a mound of organic matter sitting in a pile. In this type of situation, the centre of the pile will maintain good moisture and will therefore decompose best, while the outer pile remains dry and slow to decompose. Best practice will involve turning the pile periodically, to mix and incorporate the dry and wet ingredients, and speed up the breakdown process; this will result in a more homogenous product.
A more efficient method of composting involves combining an even mixture of wet and dry ingredients, commonly referred to as greens and browns inside a compost bin.
Greens and Browns
Greens are fresh, moist and rich in nitrogen and include many of the items commonly collected in the kitchen including fruit and vegetable scraps, tea and coffee grounds and houseplant clippings. Browns are dry, fibrous and rich in carbon and can include items commonly found around the house and backyard including dried leaves, dried grass, shredded newspaper, egg cartons and sawdust.
Types of Compost Bins
Some municipalities have composting purchasing programs that make black plastic compost bins available at a reduced price. Many home improvement and garden centres also sell compost bins suitable for backyard composting. The most common type is a black plastic cone-shaped bin with an open bottom and a lockable lid. These bins are suitable for an average family, however some families may require a second bin to accommodate all your household organic waste.
You can make your own from wood. A wooden compost bin can be designed to fit your space and composting needs. Wooden pallets can be salvaged and attached together to make a simple cost-effective model. Simply arrange four pallets in an upright position and attach the corners with nails, screws or rope to form a square.
You can also make a composter by simply tying together a 4-5 feet length of wire mesh to create an upright cylinder. Secured to a post, this composter will have excellent airflow and affordable cost.
Rotating barrel composters are becoming popular for backyard composting. The barrel is supported above ground on a frame. The height makes for easy access and the barrel can be periodically rotated, making aeration and mixing an easy task. This self-contained unit also reduces access by rodents..
Building Your Pile
Your bin will perform best with the right balance of greens, browns, oxygen and moisture. Layering equal amounts of greens and browns in your bin will ensure the moisture from the greens will balance with the drier brown ingredients. The browns will help to maintain the required amount of oxygen. Remember, greens are rich in nitrogen while browns provide carbon. This balance will support a healthy environment for the macro and microorganisms necessary to break down your compost pile.
Keeping a lid on the pile will ensure even moisture and you can always add water if you notice the pile becoming dry. If the pile is too wet it can become anaerobic. This just means there is not enough oxygen in the pile.
Adding more browns and forking the pile to loosen it will improve air circulation and bring the pile into balance. Of course, in the rotating barrel type, it will be much easier to maintain a healthy oxygen level but it is still important to maintain an even balance of browns and greens.
How long will it take?
The length of time it takes from adding raw ingredients to harvesting usable compost is varied. It can take up to a full year in our wet, cold northern climate; you can get faster results by following a few steps:
– The larger the bin the better it will be at maintaining a warm core temperature. Smaller bins slow down and may stop decomposing during the winter months.
– Positioning your composter in a sunny location to help the pile warm up on sunny days, speeding up the breakdown process, especially during cooler months.
– Chopping up compostable material into smaller pieces before adding to the bin will speed up the process.
– Maintaining an even balance of greens and browns and a good moisture level will also help speed up decomposition
– Turning the pile regularly will help maintain an even consistency and speed up decomposition.
– Inoculate your bin at start-up by adding a small bucket of healthy compost from an already active pile. This active compost will have ample macro and microorganisms to kick start your bin.
– Don’t forget the workhorse of the compost pile, the mighty earthworm. These animals multiply fast in compost, benefitting from a constant supply of rich organic materials. Collect a few worms from your garden and drop in them into your compost bin to get their population started. When you harvest compost, sift out the worms and use them to start your next pile.
It is time to harvest your compost when it has become dark in color and has a crumbly texture. Usually, compost at the bottom of the pile has decomposed better than the top. Remove the top layer and set it aside, harvest the finished product underneath and then return the top layer to the bin, to start the pile again.
Run the finished compost through a screen, if you prefer a finer product and return the coarser screenings to the bin to continue working. When your compost is ready to use it can be added directly to your garden beds. It is especially good for top dressing as mulch to smother weeds and then the nutrients from the compost can filter down into the soil whenever it rains or you water your garden.
Once you consider these steps, you will see how simple composting can be. Good composting and happy growing!!