The Garden Patch: Compost anyone? Making and using the stuff at home

Ready for this? Compost is a mixture of soil and decayed organic matter or humus that is used to improve garden and potting soil. Did we catch anyone off guard on that one? Didn’t think so …

So here we go! Properly prepared compost is free from weed seeds and offensive odors (don’t put the old man’s socks in this batch) and rich in nutrients that plants need. It may be applied as a thin top dressing for lawns, as mulch around shrubs and young trees or mixed in the soil in vegetable and flower gardens. Compost is produced in piles or pits from organic waste such as leaves, grass clippings, manures, straw, hay and garden refuse.

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. Neighborhood composting facilities or shared family compost piles are options. Composting small prunings and twigs and encouraging municipalities to shred large prunings and downed limbs allows reuse of damaged and downed limbs or overgrown plants in the landscape.

Chemistry 101 – 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, inactivating weed seeds and harmful disease organisms. After several months, the temperature decreases, the fungi disappear, and millions of bacteria continue gradual breakdown of the organic materials into rich, dark crumbly humus. In regions with acidic soils, wood ashes or limestone may hasten decay and prevent excess acidity and sourness.

As you can see, it takes awhile to make compost – don’t try to rush it!

How do we start this stuff? Locate the compost heap in an area where water will not stand. Many gardeners use an out-of-the-way accessible location near the garden or refuse disposal site for convenience.

Personal note here – we’re working with some middle school students in Osage City on a gardening project and one of the many projects we have is building compost bins out of used wooden pallets. Stay tuned – we’ll keep you informed on this one!

The compost may be made using a below ground pit or an above ground method that does not require laborious digging (see paragraph above). Although it is possible to accumulate the compost in a loose pile, an enclosure of some type is more desirable. Several materials can be used for this purpose.

Such as:

  • Woven wire or wood slat fence (did someone say snow fence?). Various types of woven wire are available – from reinforcing wire to fencing wire. Heavy gauge wire that is self supporting is preferable; however finer wire supported by rods or posts could be used. Lining the fence with a layer of plastic will speed decomposition.
  • Cement blocks or bricks. Mortar is not necessary because the weight of the blocks will hold the pile in place.
  • Scrap lumber. Don’t use good lumber because the damp compost may ruin the boards. If a permanent enclosure is desirable, use redwood or cypress. Old pallets can frequently by had free of charge – and strapping or nailing four of these together to form a cube makes an excellent compost bin.

‘Nuff said…

The size of a compost pile varies, depending on the quality of the organic material available and the amount of compost needed. Rectangular or square shapes may be slightly easier to work with than round ones. Round enclosures made of wire bent into a cylinder have the least amount of surface area to dry out and work well. Either shape can be used successfully. For most households, a pile about 5 feet in diameter is sufficient. The height of the pile will fluctuate as organic material is added. 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, garden refuse, fine hedge clippings, straw, corncobs, cold wood ashes, sawdust, old unusable hay and mulch raked from around flower or vegetable gardens.

Avoid using severely diseased flower or vegetable plants. Kitchen scraps such as egg shells, peelings or plant residues can be added if the pile is covered to prevent flies, but avoid using meat scraps or bones as they may attract undesirable animals.

Let’s visit some more about compost next week. It’s really valuable stuff. I use a lot of it myself and therefore I am a FIRM believer!

Good harvesting!


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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