The Garden Patch: Benefit the environment in your own back yard

Well, you regular readers have read about my tirades concerning composting before. I ain’t done!

This is from an advanced master gardener class I took at K-State in 2013. Chuck Marr wrote the paper I’m going to quote from and the class was based on this writing. The title, believe it or not, is … Making and Using Compost at Home. Here goes:

Compost is a mixture of soil and decayed organic matter or humus that is used to improve garden and potting soil. Properly prepared compost is free from weed seeds and offensive odors and rich in nutrients that plants need. It may be applied as a thin top dressing for lawns (I’ve done this), as mulch for shrubs and young trees (I’ve done this), or mixed into the soil in vegetable and flower gardens (I’ve done this, too). Compost is produced in piles or pits from organic waste such as leaves, grass clippings, manures, straw, hay and garden refuse (I’ve used ‘em all).

One of the greatest benefits of making compost is that it allows us to recycle garden and yard waste into a valuable, usable product, reducing the amount of solid waste going into landfills. Converting your garden, fruit and vegetable wastes to compost is something you can do to improve the environment.

Here’s the technical stuff … the conversion of organic wastes to rich humus involves several types of bacteria and fungi. Fungi begin the process by breaking down cellulose and other complex molecules in the residue. Fungus populations increase rapidly in a new compost pile. The temperature inside the pile may rise to 150 to 160 degrees F, inactivating weed seeds and harmful disease organisms.

Getting started

Locate your compost heap in an area where water will not stand. Many gardeners use an out-of-the-way accessible 092614-leave2location near the garden or refuse disposal site for convenience. I compost about 6 feet away from a garden in plastic containers (three of them about three feet by three feet by four feet tall. Although it is possible to simply accumulate the compost in a loose pile, an enclosure of some type is desirable. Several materials can be used for this purpose: Woven wire or wood slat fence, cement blocks or bricks or scrap lumber to name a few. Old pallets are readily available and strapping five of them together to make a cube creates an excellent compost bin.

The size of a compost pile varies, depending on the quantity of material available and the amount of compost needed. A pile or bin could be divided into two parts – or use two identical bins – one for accumulating this year’s waste and one for compost made last year.

Several kinds of plant materials can be used in the compost pile. These include leaves, grass clippings, weeds or garden refuse, fine hedge clippings, straw, corncobs, cold wood ashes, sawdust, old unusable hay and mulch from around flower or vegetable gardens. Avoid using severely diseased vegetable or flower plants. Kitchen scraps such as eggshells, peelings or plant residues can be added to the pile if covered to prevent flies, but AVOID using meat scraps or bones as this may attract dogs or other animals.

Making the compost pile

The top of the compost pile should be dish-shaped or slightly lower in the center than on the sides. This allows rainwater 092614-leave1to soak into the pile rather than run off.

The rate of decomposition can be hastened by turning the pile – slicing through the layers and turning them upside down. This action is similar to spading garden soil when it is turned over. This “mixing” should be followed by reforming the “dish” at the top of the pile and watering. Compost should be ready to use 4 to 6 months after starting the pile, but most gardeners to keep two piles or one pile divided into two sections. Materials can be accumulated in one while last year’s finished compost is available to use from the other.

As your compost pile progresses, these signs will indicate whether all is going well:

  •  In two to three weeks the pile should shrink or sink. If not, loosen and water if dry.
  • Check for strong ammonia or offensive odor. Could be caused by overwatering or an imbalance of materials. Aerate.
  • After four or five weeks, it should be hot deep within the pile.
  • In three to four months, the pile should be about half its original height. The compost should be dark, moist and crumbly.

Grass clippings

Grass clippings – a common waste. However, recent research indicates it is beneficial to leave the clippings on the lawn.

Using compost

Compost can be beneficial in a variety of horticultural applications.

  • Fertilization and soil improvement. Addition of organic material improves looseness and workability of soil. Heavy, tight clay soils benefit from the loosening effects of organic materials. Sandy soils benefit as well from improved water-holding capacity and fertility. Apply compost at the rate of 50 to 100 pounds per 100 square feet of garden space or generally translated; 1 to 2 bushels of compost for every 10-foot by 10-foot area of garden. Best time to apply? Just prior to tillage – either spring or fall.
  • Compost at planting. A band of compost in the bottom of a row trench or several shovels full in the bottom of planting holes is ideal, especially for individual tomato plants, perennial flower, trees and shrubs. It can be mixed with water to form a soluble fertilizer or starter solution.
  • Mulching. A layer of compost 2 to 3 inches thick along a row of garden vegetables and flowers reduces moisture fluctuations and evaporation of water from the soil surface. After the garden season, simply till the mulch in.
  • 092614-leave3Potting mix for seedlings. Compost that has been screened for large particles can be mixed with soil or sand – in about equal parts – and used as a plant growing medium. The compost must be well deteriorated.
  • Using compost on a lawn. The best way to use compost on a lawn is to apply it liberally before planting the lawn initially. A thin top layer can be added each year to provide some fertilization.
  • Cautions in using compost. It is important to understand that compost is not a cure-all for garden soils or problems. Contact your local extension agent for information about control measures.

OK, folks! Class dismissed! I’ll look forward to “talking” with you again next week. Till then – happy gardening!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.


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