Among experienced gardeners, organic natural compost is sometimes referred to as “black gold” because of the many benefits it offers as a garden soil amendment:
- Improving soil structure
- Aiding microbial activity in the soil
- Attracting earthworms and beneficial insects
- Moderating temperatures and moisture levels of soil
- Providing slow-release, organic nutrients
Best of all, there is no soil amendment that is cheaper or easier to create than ordinary compost. Compost is simply the end product that results when organic matter decomposes naturally under microbial action. Virtually all organic matter, if heaped together and allowed enough time, will break down into compost, but you can speed the process along with some simple techniques for controlling the conditions of decomposition.
What Is “Organic” Matter?
By the strict definition, “organic” refers to any material that is based on elemental carbon molecules. Because all living things are based on carbon, “organic” can be defined as any material that was once living—both plant and animal life. But when it comes to creating garden compost, it is generally just the plant-based materials that are appropriate as fuels for compost. While substances such as meat scraps and pet excrement can, and will, eventually break down, it’s not good practice to include these animal-based materials in your compost heap, as they may contain disease-causing pathogens and parasites.
Before Getting Started
The recipe for creating an effective compost that can be used as a soil amendment can be summed up as follows: “Organic plant-based material + moisture + air + time = garden compost.” With the right mixture of materials and careful attention, a heap can become useable compost in just a couple of months, though it more often takes six months or so.
Allowable materials for making compost include garden waste, fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, leaves, grass clippings, paper, twigs, etc. These materials thrown together will eventually decompose into a fine-textured, dark-brown granular material that is much prized by gardeners. The decomposition process naturally generates heat, and by the time the compost cooking process is complete, weed seeds, fungus spores, and other undesirable elements should no longer be viable. The finished compost looks like rich soil. It’s dark and crumbly with a pleasant earthy smell.
Compost is not particularly high in essential nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K), and compost alone does not eliminate the need for secondary fertilizers to feed most plants. But for plants with minimal nutritional needs, compost may provide be all that’s needed. And it can reduce your dependence on chemical synthetic fertilizers. Spreading a thin layer of well-decayed compost over your lawn as a top-dressing, for example, can eliminate the need for at least one summer feeding of your lawn.
While there are many methods of composting and many composting bin styles, there is no best method. The important thing to remember is that you can never add too much compost to your soil. There are two basic approaches to making your own compost: active and passive.
- Passive composting is the “compost happens” school. All you need to do is pile up your organic matter and wait. It can take many months or even a few years to fully decompose, but eventually, it will. However, the passive composting process may never generate the heat needed to kill off weed seeds and spores.
- Active composting requires varying degrees of effort. Truly active composting involves being somewhat precise with the layers you add to your compost pile, turning it regularly to provide the necessary oxygen for the decomposition process, and monitoring moisture levels to keep things barely damp but never soggy.
When to Create Compost
Maintaining a compost heap can be started at any time, but once started, the practice becomes ongoing as you constantly add food scraps, plant clippings, and other organic materials to the compost. Even in cold-winter climates, a compost heap can continue to generate heat and break down materials well into freezing weather. Some northern gardeners have even been known to maintain indoor compost heaps through the entire winter. Or you can store organic materials outdoors in sealed containers to add to the compost heap when warm weather returns.
Composting makes sense for anyone looking for an organic, environmentally friendly means of conditioning garden soil and feeding plants.
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