Good afternoon Grow Appalachians! I hope you are feeling ready for a little break this Memorial Day weekend. I certainly am! This post is a little bit of a recycle that I wrote back in 2015, but since so many of you readers are new folks, I figured I’d revive things a little. Plus, a little refresher never hurt anyone, yeah? 🙂
All right. Compost. What is it?
Simply put, it is a collection of broken down organic matter, plant matter, and other matter that is decayed; it provides extra nutrients to your garden. Really healthy compost is supposed to look like dark soil! What’s so neat about compost is that aside from adding materials here and there and “shaking things up” occasionally, the act of creating compost is a purely biological and natural activity! Science at work! (I get a little geeky about this stuff…sorry!)
Good compost needs two components: energy materials, which provide nitrogen needed for rapid microbial growth; and bulking agents, which are dry materials that help aerate the compost as it breaks down. If a compost pile lacks bulking agents, it’ll be too wet and airflow is restricted. On the other hand, too much bulking agent won’t decompose on its own because there isn’t enough moisture. A good rule of thumb is one parts energy materials to two parts bulking agents (see examples below). If you’re trying to compost in a hurry, you can add balanced raw materials into your pile, which contain equal parts bulking agents and energy materials. Avoid using materials that are too bulky or woody, as they take longer time to break down and make the pile more difficult to “turn”. More on turning a little later.
If you’re starting a pile from scratch, it may be helpful to add a couple of cupfuls of garden soil.
Turn, Turn, Turn
Turning helps to release oxygen into the pile, because, for the most part, compost that is breaking down is an anaerobic environment. The easiest way to turn your pile is with a pitchfork or a shovel and moving the layers on the bottom to the top, and vice versa. However, many folks are catching onto compost tumblers, which are exactly what they sound like. You can buy one or make one yourself, although it might be worth your financial while to use one if you have some serious compost piling going on. Grow Appalachia doesn’t discourage the use of them; we just want to make sure folks are investing their resources soundly 🙂 A more detailed overview of compost tumblers can be found here.
Slow composting (or cold)- Slow composting is exactly what it is: slow, because step 1 involves waiting about a year. Yes, you read that correctly! Simply gather up and mix some non-woody yard materials (grass clippings, leaves, etc) into a pile and leave it. Set a calendar reminder, and then go about your life. After that, add fresh materials into the center of the pile and cover it. One downside to this method is that the temperature of the pile does not get hot enough to kill weed seeds, so don’t throw in any seeded weeds into it. Probably best to just leave weeds out of it altogether.
Fast composting (or hot)- Again, like slow composting, it’s exactly what it’s named for. It does take a bit of prep work, though: Start with material to make a pile approximately 5 feet wide by 3 feet high. Yep, that’s a lot of stuff! Remembering the rule of thumb, use two parts bulking agents to one part energy material and smash, shred, or chop larger materials so they’ll break down easier. Mix all of that with a pitchfork or shovel. After that, check the moisture: Grab a handful and squeeze it in your fist. If you can barely squeeze out a drop of water, that is the ideal moisture level. If it’s too dry, add water; if it’s too wet, add more dry materials. Repeat the previous steps until you’ve built the complete pile. Turn it weekly and add water as needed, and let the pile cure for 4-8 weeks. The compost is ready when it’s been at least eight weeks since the initial mixing, the pile no longer retains heat when it’s turned, and it looks like…dirt!
A quick note about hot composting- If you notice your pile isn’t hot, don’t worry! It will eventually break down…just by way of the slow method 🙂
Vermicomposting- AKA worm bins! A quick tip about composting with worms; you have to use a specific “breed”. In other words, nightcrawlers or what you get from, say, bait stores are not suitable for this purpose. Vermicomposting requires the use of red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida). You can buy them from a worm grower. Feed your worms kitchen scraps (nothing with meat, oils, or dairy), newspaper, leaf litter, and add some garden soil when you’re ready. Then add the worms and let them feast! It’ll take about 3 months for them to eat everything.
A Few Tips:
- Be patient! Regardless of which method you use, it’ll take time to get a good product! Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see results right away.
- You can add manure to your compost pile, but two conditions: 1. Make sure it’s had enough time to rot. 2. Don’t use pig, cat, or dog manure- the bacteria and parasites found in it can thrive in certain environments for a long time and be harmful to people.
- Don’t add meat, bones, or fish scraps into the pile. They can attract pests….and make for some unpleasant smells.
To wrap up: This will, sadly, be my last regularly scheduled post. You will see blogs from HQ, but they’ve been written in advance. Thank you so much, everyone, for the wonderful opportunity you all have given to me these past almost three years! I’m so encouraged and inspired by this work and by people like you working to make your parts of the world a little brighter. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Best of luck to all of you in the ups and downs that life brings. I hope our paths cross again someday 🙂
Best, and take care,