The Garden Patch: Slow or fast, composting makes the same good stuff

OK. Last week we discussed using compost – but we didn’t talk much about making it. So let’s start with the basics.

In slow composting, start with a layer of soil or sand 2 to 3 inches deep on the bottom. Then add a layer of organic materials. For fine materials such as thin grass clippings, use only a 2 to 3 inch layer; for coarser materials like straw, use 6 to 8 inch layers. To speed up decomposition, add a small quantity of commercial garden fertilizer – 1 to 2 cups per square yard of area. You may substitute an inch or two of manure. The purpose of the fertilizer or manure is to provide a source of nutrients for microorganisms that must build up in the compost pile to ensure decomposition.

Repeat this sequence of soil or sand, organic materials and fertilizer in layers as organic materials become available. Water each layer as it is added.

The top of the compost pile should be dish shaped or slightly lower in the center than on the sides. This allows rainfall to soak in rather than run off the sides. Because of extremely high temperatures generated by the composting process, a dry compost pile oxidizes too rapidly and the overheated, feathery compost that develops is of little value. In dry weather, a weekly soaking of the pile is desirable to keep the moisture level sufficiently moist.

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 in four to six months after starting the pile, but most gardeners prefer 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 for use from the other. See, I told you it would take some time!

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

  • In two to three weeks, the pile should shrink and sink. If it has not, loosen the pile with a shovel or fork to provide more aeration or add moisture if the compost is dry.
  • Check for a strong ammonia or offensive odor. This may be caused by overwatering or an imbalance of materials. Aerate as above. Ammonia odors often come from composting a lot of fresh, green plant material, especially grass clippings.
  • After four or five weeks, or less than a week for “quick composting”, it should be hot deep within the pile. Push a wire or stick deep within the pile, pull it out and touch it to check temperature.
  • In three or four months, the pile should be about half its original height. The compost will be dark, moist and crumbly. It should have the odor of moldy leaves or a rich, earthy color.

OK. That’s the old tried and true, proven way to compost. Now think about this.

In recent years, the emphasis has been on quick composting. Materials are finely shredded, premixed with soil and/or fertilizer, moistened and placed in an enclosed bag or bin. The resulting compost – in a month or so instead of four to six months – is comparable in quality to that of slow composting. It does, however require more effort!

Several commercial bins can be purchased for use in quick composting processes and each comes with operating instructions. Check with your local garden center for the nearest source of these bins.

Or, you can use containers such as plastic bags or garbage cans for the same purpose. Sheet plastic and a standard enclosure work as well. (See, we’re getting less sophisticated and cheaper as we go along!) Begin by lining the enclosure with sheet plastic. Next, finely shred the organic material with a soil shredder, compost grinder or coarse hammer mill. (I use my leaf blower in reverse.) These devices are costly for most gardeners, but the serious gardener may find them useful. For those who do not wish to purchase a grinder or shredder, a rotary lawnmower can be used to pulverize or shred leaves and coarse materials such as plant stems. For mowers with bagging attachments, collect the organic materials in the bag. With discharge mowers, blow shredded materials into a central pile by turning in a circle.

Then mix and add shredded organic materials, soil and fertilizer or manure in proportions similar to those used in the slow composting method. It is not necessary to turn the pile. It should be ready for use in two to three weeks in warm weather and five to six weeks in cooler weather. The compost may be stored for long periods if not immediately needed.

Next week we’ll offer some suggestions on composting materials, use and soil improvement. Tell your garden you’re learning – and a better life is ahead! Till next week!

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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