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   Composting for the Home Garden

Composting is not only the most convenient way to handle your yard and organic food wastes, itís also cheaper than paying to have them hauled away if youíre not on a city, town, or township-sponsored garbage removal service. Composting is also easy to do.

What is compost anyway? Itís decomposing organic matter that results in a dark, earthy-smelling, and crumbly mixture thatís an essential part of soil building and healthy plant growth in forests and meadows, and it will do the same for your home garden. And donít think compost is only useful for vegetable gardens. If you have a lawn, shrubs, trees, or flowers in your landscape, you can use compost. You can even mix it with potting soil for your potted plants.

Improving your soil is the first step toward improving the health of your plants, which in turn helps clean the air and conserve the soil. Compost enables you to return organic matter to your soil in usable form. It helps break up heavy clay soils, adds moisture and the ability to hold nutrients to sandy soils, plus adds nutrients.

What should you put in your compost pile?
As with recycling, most people donít know what to put in their compost pile. Although you can compost anything that was once living, some organic wastes, such as food scraps, weeds, and diseased plants should not be put in your home composting pile. But do put garden wastes like leaves, grass clippings, dead flowers, old potting soil, old plants, and twigs into it. You can also bury vegetable and fruit scraps, as well as coffee and tea bags in your pile.

So what exactly happens in a compost pile that takes all these materials and refines them down to a rich soil additive? Bacteria starts the process of decaying organic matter. Fungi and protozoans soon join the bacteria, then centipedes, millipedes, beetles and earthworms do their parts.

Anything growing in your yard is potential food for these tiny creatures. Carbon and nitrogen, from the cells of dead plants and dead microbes, fuel their activity. The micro-organisms use the carbon in leaves as an energy source. Nitrogen provides the microbes with the proteins to build their bodies.

How large should I make it?
The organic materials decompose faster if the surface area the micro-organisms have to work on is larger. Itís like a block of ice in the sunóslow to melt when ifs large, but melting very fast when broken into smaller pieces. So, if possible, chop up your garden wastes with a shovel or mulching mower to speed their composting.

Also, the larger a compost pile is, the better it will hold the heat of microbial activity. Its center will be warmer than its edges. If your compost pile is smaller than 27 cubic feet, it will have trouble holding this heat, while piles larger than 125 cubic feet don't allow enough air to reach the microbes at the center.

The microbes in a compost pile also need air and water. They function best when the compost materials are about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, plus have many air passages. Extremes of sun or rain can adversely affect this moisture balance in your pile.

What's the best way to get started?
The least expensive way to get into composting is to literally start a pile of leaves and grass clippings. If you turn this over using a stable fork, youíll have an acceptable compost in several months. However, if you want to get serious, you should purchase or build a compost holding unit.

Place the holding unit where it will be convenient. As you collect weeds, grass clippings, leaves and harvest remains from your garden plants, you can drop them into the unit. Chopping or shredding wastes, alternating high-carbon and high-nitrogen materials, and keeping up good moisture and aeration will all speed up the process and make your compost pile hotter. However, it will take from six months to two years for your compost to mature.

If you choose not to buy a unit, you can build one easily using a circle of heavy wire mesh, old wooden pallets, or wood and wire.

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