Compost the Cornerstone of Organic Gardening

In the soft warm bosom of a decaying compost heap, a transformation from life to death and back again is taking place. Life is leaving the living plants of yesterday, but in their death these leaves and stalks pass on their vitality to the coming generations of future seasons.

Composting is a natural process that recycles plant materials. Essentially, bacteria and other organisms feast 011 carbon-rich matter and digest it, producing humus, a rich, stable medium in which plants thrive.

Worked into soils, humus builds soil structure and provides a productive environment for plants and essential soil organisms.

The more technical definition is: composting is the controlled aerobic (oxygen-using) biological decomposition of moist organic (biologically derived carbon-containing) solid matter to produce a soil conditioner.

Over time, tiny microorganisms break down dead and decaying grass, leaves, twigs, paper, sawdust, hay and straw, weeds, wood ashes, human and animal hair, feathers, garden waste, seaweed and kitchen vegetable and fruit waste. Kitchen waste can include coffee grounds, tea leaves, and egg shells.

The primary microorganisms responsible for composting are bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi.

However, algae, mixomycetes (slime molds), viruses, lichens and mycoplasmas are other organisms present in the composting process.

Soil animals, such as protozoa, amoeba, nematodes, earthworms and arthropods, also perform major roles by degrading surface litter, consuming bacteria and assisting in aeration.

Healthier plants

The microbes break down this 'waste' into dark brown, crumbly compost, rich in nutrients. Compost enhances the health of plants and also improves the soil.

It does this by adding humus, which is the main component of finished compost and is essential for creating an ideal soil structure.

Because it is riddled with pores, the humus in compost shelters nutrients and provides an extensive surface area to which nutrients can bond. It actually traps three to five times more nutrients, water, and air than other soil components.

These characteristics also help retain nutrients that could otherwise be leached or eroded away. Adding organic matter to soils reduces the need for additional nutrient applications.

Compost holds soil together, thereby resisting erosion. High in organic matter, compost can help lighten up heavy clay soils to improve drainage and make it easier for roots to grow. Compost will also help sandy soils hold water and retain nutrients that would otherwise drain through the soil. It also increases the soil's permeability to air and water, and helps soil retain moisture during droughts.

Why not just add raw materials directly?

Why not just add raw materials directly to the soil instead of composting them first? Because when nutrients in materials arc decomposing slowly, they are not available for use by plants.

Modern methods of composting help speed up and intensify this natural process of decomposition. Also, decaying organic matter can tie up soil nitrogen—an important plant food.

That's why compost is so valuable—it converts organic material into a stablised product that builds soils and releases plant nutrients gradually—like a time-release vitamin pill.

Compost also supplies micronutrients

Compost also supplies the micronutrients that are needed by plants in very small quantities. Iron, iodine, manganese, zinc and others.

These nutrients are released at the rate your plants need them throughout the growing season. Compost can also help modify soil that is either too acidic or too alkaline.

In addition, compost can neutralise various toxins and metals by bonding with them and preventing them from being taken up by plants. It also helps plants to resist disease.

Composting garden waste is preferable to allowing residues to remain in the garden, because plant material left to rot 011 the ground can provide a place for pests and diseases to over-winter.

A few simple rules

If you follow a few simple rules, you can avoid unpleasant odours and the compost heap won't attract unwanted critters.

Don't add meat scraps or dairy products—they will turn rancid and smell, attracting rodents, pests and maybe the family dog. Don't add pet waste, as this may harbour disease pathogens dangerous to humans.

Avoid adding charcoal ash and large amounts of vegetable oil or grease.

Everything rots

Always remember that everything rots. Whether it takes place in a forest or in a corner of the back garden, compost happens. To achieve a healthy compost heap, ingredients should be added in layers and mixed together.

If you liave a large garden, the best idea is to have three compost heaps. One being built up, one decomposing and one in use.

In tropical and sub-tropical areas, compost should be ready to use in three to four months during the cooler months, eight to ten weeks in summer. In cool and temperate climates, compost may tak from five to six months in winter, two to three months during summer.

The warmer the weather, the faster the compost heap will decompose.

Location

Locate the compost heaps in a convenient area of the garden.

The compost structure should be freestanding and not leaning against a building and it should be placed in an area where there is shade, which will prevent it from over heating in the sun.

Compost bins

Compost bins can be bought from most major nurseries or garden centres or you can construct your own from brick, wire, corrcgated iron or timber. Whether you use open or plastic bins, the basic method of making compost is the same.

Compost bins constructed from timber pallets

A simple compost bin made from heavy mesh

Basic compost

Mix together carbon rich material such as dry leaves, with nitrogen rich materials, such as grass clippings. Add a thin layer of garden soil (soil contains microorganisms which speed up decomposition) then add water to keep it slightly damp but not wet.

Turn the heap occasionally to add air—oxygen. If the compost heap isn't turned or mixed it will still decompose, but the process will be a little slower.

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Building a compost heap

Spread a 15 em layer of plant wastes such as hay, straw, spent crops, leaves or woodchips over the ground. Add to this a 5 cm layer of manure or a generous sprinkling of chicken manure pellets. On top of this place a 2 cm layer of garden soil.

Sprinkle on lime or dolomite (about 2 Vi cups) and hall' this amount of ground mineral rock. 1'hcn add a 15 cm layer of green material such as grass clippings, kitchen wastes, weeds and other garden debris. Manure can be added to this layer.

Cover with a thin layer of soil. Continue to build the heap in layers until it's about 1 V2 metres high and keep the heap moist as you build it. Dampen each new layer, any dry materials and the layer of soil. This will help the plant material to rapidly breakdown.

Adding the soil layer immediately after the kitchen wastes will keep odours under control and prevent flies from laying eggs in the rotting material. When the heap has heated up, turn it over occasionally, and cover with a tliick layer of mulch.

Earthworms will move into the heap as it cools adding their valuable castings. Note: Every 24 hours, earthworms eat more than their own weight in dead organic matter and mineral soil.

Add comfrey and yarrow

Adding some shredded comfrey leaves and a yarrow leaf to the heap will help the compost break down faster.

Asa compost activator, comfrey is so rich in nutrients that it not only enriches the heap but also encourages it to heat up. One single yarrow leaf added to a layer of compost has the ability to significantly increase the speed of decomposition.

When is it ready?

How do you know when the compost heap is ready to use? Finished compost should be crumbly, dark in colour, and should smell sweet and earthy.

The word compost comes from two Latin roots, one meaning 'together* and the other meaning, 'to bring'.

Use on the vegetable garden before planting up. Add the compost to the top 10 cm of soil. Once or twice a year spread compost around fruit trees in a layer about 3 cm thick.

Composting is one of the oldest forms of recycling known to humankind and a natural solution to overflowing landfills and poor soils. When you use compost, you foster a rich and diverse microbial world in your soil, helping to ensure the fertility of the land for next year's garden and for coming generations. E

Carbon and nitrogen balance

Keeping a balance of carbon and nitrogen is a big part of having a successful compost pile.

Ideally, a ratio of 20-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen material is best, although a rough approximation will work fine. As decomposition really gets underway, the pile will shrink anywhere from 20-60 percent, depending upon the materials it contains.

In cold climates

In cold climates, the ideal size of a compost heap would be a minimum of 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres x 1.2 metres to properly insulate the heat of the composting process. If you don't have room for a large pile, a smaller one will w ork just line.

Insulate the heap by covering it with a thick layer of straw, hay or leaves. If you don't mind it decomposing at a lower rate, don't bother with the insulation, just wait for the weather to warm up again when decomposition will continue.

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