by Chip Bolcik
Compost. Without it, a garden can be a wasteland of unhealthy plant life. Here in Northern New Jersey, our soils are mostly clay – not the best medium for growing healthy vegetables and flowers.
So how can you tell if you need more compost in your soil? It’s easy.
Dig a little and look at your soil. If it looks mostly orange – like clay, it is clay.
Next, look at your plants. Do insects flourish on them?
Are your vegetables small and kind of sickly looking?
Did hat prized tomato variety you planted in last year only give you two fruits? Is your soil hard and tough to dig into?
Do you find the task of digging holes in the ground could more easily be done with a jackhammer?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you need compost!
Compost won’t solve all of your gardening problems – it isn’t a magic bullet, but it will solve most of them. Properly made compost delivers nutrients plants in a way that keeps them healthy and safe. It delivers its nutrients slowly over time and never burns plants. Insects don’t harm vegetables and flowers grown in composted soil nearly as much as they do in regular dirt. Compost helps keep water in the ground so you don’t have to water as much - even in July and August. Compost also keeps air pockets in the soil, encouraging plant growth. It does all sorts of great things for your garden.
So how do you make compost?
There are two basic ways. One way, slow composting, is easy to do but takes a long time to make finished compost. The other method, hot or active composting, creates compost quickly, but requires a good deal of work. Let’s look at both ways of making this “black gold” for your garden.
Slow Composting is easy. Gather leaves and grass clippings and throw them in a pile. Try to use about twice as many leaves as grass clipping if you can. If you don’t have leaves on hand, you can also use sawdust, wood chips, dried weeds or dried out, brown grass. These dry materials all provide your pile with carbon, one of two ingredients a compost pile needs. The other ingredient needed is nitrogen and that’s usually supplied by fresh grass clippings. In addition to grass clippings, you can also use kitchen scraps – no meat or fish though - they attract rodents and other pests. You can use coffee grounds, human hair and even pet hair in your pile. They are all good sources of nitrogen. In a slow compost pile, put ingredients in the pile as you get them and just walk away. The compost will happen all by itself within a year or so. Worms, microbes and even the weather will break everything down into beautiful, rich dark compost for your garden.
How will you know when your compost is ready?
Smell it. When it smells like a forest floor, it’s ready.
The other way to make compost is with a hot pile. This method greatly speeds up the process, giving you compost within two or three months. I use this method in my yard. To build my pile, I usually start with a 4’x4’x4’ wire enclosure. I layer twigs and woody stalks a few inches thick at the bottom of it. The twigs and stalks will later allow air to circulate underneath the pile I’m going to build. On top of the wood and stalks, I layer six-inches worth of leaves, followed by two inches of grass clippings. I throw a shovel full of dirt or two from the yard in next because it contains the microbes the pile will use to heat up. Then I water everything and repeat this layering process until I have a pile at least three feet tall. With a hot compost pile, you need to add all of your materials at once and make sure they’re moist or the pile will not heat up.
How much water should you add?
Enough so the compost materials almost, but don’t quite drip when you hold up a handful. Aside from creating compost quickly, hot composting has the advantage of being an excellent way to kill weed seeds before they have a chance to germinate in your garden. To insure that you kill any and all weed seeds and also to ensure that the pile matures quickly, you should turn it frequently. Some experts say turn a hot compost pile every two weeks. Others suggest getting a compost thermometer and measuring the temperature. Hot piles can climb as high as 60ºF or even higher. For most of this winter, for example, this year, my piles have hovered in the 150º range – even when the outside air temperature was only 9ºF! With a compost thermometer, you can keep track of the temperature of your pile daily. When it rises and then falls again to around 100ºF, turn the pile over, making sure you put the material that was on the outside of the pile on the inside. Repeat this process after each rise and fall in temperature until the compost no longer heats up. If you’re not using a thermometer, if you’re just turning on a regular schedule, stick your hand in the pile after a few months. If a week after you’ve turned the pile, it feels warm, but not hot, it’s ready. You can also tell compost is ready when it smells like a forest floor.
In my yard, I make a lot of compost – several tons a year - so I use a lot of raw materials. In the winter when there are no grass clippings around, I get coffee grounds from my local Starbucks. Coffee grounds have the same nitrogen levels as grass and Starbucks has a seemingly endless supply of grounds available. Any Starbucks in the country will give you coffee grounds just for the asking. Coffee grounds are acidic though, so be careful not to make them more than 25% of your pile’s contents. Leaves can be collected and saved from late fall through early winter. You can also get sawdust instead of leaves. Wood shops and unfinished furniture shops are good sources for sawdust. Try to avoid plywood sawdust though. And definitely avoid any sawdust from pressure treated wood. Pressure treated wood contains arsenic and composting won’t break it down. You can also get woodchips through any tree service. I usually get several tons at a time and the tree guys are happy to deliver them right to my driveway. They hate getting rid of the stuff. During the warm months, grass clippings can be had from any yard service for the asking, but be careful about what you take. Many, many yards are treated with chemicals for weeds and those chemicals can stay on the grass. The best time to accept clippings from a yard service is after a rain when most chemicals have washed off the blades, but even then only take treated clippings if you hot compost. Most experts say that compost temperatures above 140ºF will break down lawn chemicals, but you have to have your compost analyzed to make sure, so play it safe and stick with grass clippings you know haven’t been treated.
Riding stables are a great source for horse manure and bedding for your compost pile. If you keep chickens or rabbits, their waste products are good sources of nitrogen for a pile. Cat and dog excrement, however, should be avoided. They contain harmful organisms that will adversely affect your health. Human hair is fine for a pile. Go to a barbershop and pick some up. I like to go to a men’s haircutter because men’s hair is less likely to have chemicals in it than women’s. I’m not sure if hair chemicals and colorings will break down in a compost pile, so I just avoid women’s salons.
Whether you plan to make a lot of compost or just a little, you will be well served to start a pile of your own now. Your garden will benefit, your plants will benefit and you’ll be doing the right thing for the environment. Composting keeps lots of stuff out of landfills. It is also a win-win activity for you and your planted. So get started!