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Composting for Beginners: Part 1

Home Composting Guide

Composting at home is becoming more and more popular as gardeners look to do their own part in conservation and sustainability. The compost process allows us to reduce the contribution to landfills, and give our garden well needed resources at no cost. Here is part 1 of our Composting for Beginners / Composting Guide for Homeowners.

What exactly is compost?

Compost is a dark, friable, partially decomposed form of organic matter that is similar to soil organic matter in nature. Nature will naturally decompose layers of the soil, but we can accelerate the composting process to benefit the environment and our gardens.

Why Create Compost?

Gardeners frequently struggle with disposing of leaves, grass clippings, and other garden waste, especially in urban areas. These garden and landscape wastes can be converted into useful compost with no more effort than it takes to bag and haul them away. In many cases, compost will perform the same function as peat moss, lowering gardening costs. Returning these organic materials to the land helps to maintain natural biological cycles and is an environmentally friendly way to dispose of organic waste.

Why is Compost Valuable?

A well formed compost is made up of a small amount of soil and decomposed or partially decomposed plant and animal waste. Compost, as a soil amendment, improves both physical condition and fertility. It is especially beneficial for augmenting and improving low-organic-matter soils.

The organic matter in compost makes it easier to work with heavy clay soils by binding the soil particles together. Soil particle aggregation improves aeration, root penetration, and water infiltration while also reducing crusting of the soil surface. Additional organic matter also aids in the retention of water and nutrients in sandy soils.

Although compost contains nutrients, its main advantage is that it improves soil characteristics. and create a thriving bio ecosystem for friendly bacteria and fungus. As a result, it should be regarded as a valuable soil amendment rather than a fertilizer, because, in most cases, additional fertilization will be required to achieve maximum growth and production.

Compost is also an excellent mulching material for garden and landscape plants. It can be used as a “topdressing” for lawns and, with a small amount of soil added, as a growing medium for house plants or seedlings.

How Does Compost Form?

Under controlled conditions, composting accelerates the natural process of decomposition. The action of microorganisms converts raw organic material into compost (fungi and bacteria). Microorganisms proliferate rapidly during the early stages of composting. Some microorganisms predominate as the materials decompose. However, as they complete a function, these microorganisms decline, while others accumulate and continue the decomposition.

Temperatures within the pile approach 140 degrees to 160 degrees F at the center of the composting mass as microorganisms decompose the organic materials. In these high-temperature areas, composting can kill some of the weed seeds and non-friendly organisms. However, sterilization does not occur in cooler areas of the composting heap.

Large amounts of nitrogen are required by organisms that are primarily responsible for the breakdown of organic materials. As a result, nitrogen fertilizer or materials containing large amounts of nitrogen are required for rapid and thorough decomposition. This nitrogen is bound up and unavailable to plants during the breakdown period. However, it is released once the decomposition process is complete and the compost is returned to the garden.

What can I compost?

Many types of organic material can be used for composting: sod, grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw, weeds, manure, chopped corncobs, corn stalks, sawdust, shredded newspaper, wood ashes, hedge clippings, and many kinds of plant refuse from the kitchen and garden. Twigs and thick sticks should not be used because they decompose very slowly.

It is best not to use diseased plants from the flower or vegetable garden for composting if the compost is to be returned to the garden later. Although some disease are killed by heating during compost formation, unless the compost is turned frequently and thoroughly and kept at very high temperatures (Hot composting), some of these disease organisms may be returned to the garden with the compost. If diseases have not been a problem, this precaution may not be necessary.

Also, it is best to avoid composting weeds heavily laden with seeds. Even though some seeds are killed during composting, if the quantity of seeds is extremely high, many may be returned to the garden when the compost is used and create an unnecessary weed problem.

Most garbage may also be used in the compost heap, with the exception of grease, fat, meat scraps, and bones. These may attract dogs, rodents, or other animals, and may develop an odor during decomposition. Fats are slow to break down and greatly increase the length of time required before the compost can be used.

Subscribe to our posts to receive part 2 of this series when we talk about building your pile and managing the composting process.

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