It is fall. Your lawn is covered with a layer of leaves. Dead plants need cutting down. As you clean up your garden and prepare it for winter, use those leaves and dead plants to start your compost pile. The timing is perfect, as it will ensure you have compost for spring planting.
What is Compost?
Because of its value in improving garden soil, compost is oftentimes called ‘Black Gold.’ Penn State Extension describes compost as ‘organic matter that has decomposed into a form that plants can use.’ Composting occurs every day in soil, but when you create a compost pile you speed up the natural processes. Bacteria, fungi, and other microbes feed on organic matter in the first stage; centipedes, millipedes, sowbugs, and other organisms continue the decomposition. The body heat of the microorganisms causes the temperature in the pile to rise -- it should reach a temperature of 110 to 140 degrees F in four to five days. The heating kills some weed seeds and disease organisms in the center but not toward the cooler outside, therefore turn the pile regularly to heat all parts. Turning adds oxygen to the center of the pile, speeding up decomposition. The finished product is dark and crumbly with an earthy aroma. You can use it in potting mixes, and mixed in with garden soil to improve its physical conditions and fertility. It is especially useful in the Poconos to amend our heavy clay soils.
Decide where you want to locate your compost pile. I have mine in my kitchen garden area because that is where I use the compost. Don’t place it under trees because it may attract the tree roots, but some protection from full sun is desirable to prevent the pile from drying out. You may need to keep the compost moist, so locating near a water source is a good idea. On the other hand, don’t place it where water may stand. If you can access the pile from all sides you will find it easier to turn.
- What can be composted
There are two groups of materials that can be composted: ‘green’ (high in nitrogen and moisture) and ‘brown’ (high in carbon, low in moisture, and slow to break down.) Greens include fresh leaves, plant cuttings, weeds, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peels and other fruit wastes, manure, coffee grounds, and tea bags. Brown materials are dead weeds and dry leaves, clipped brush, wood ash, eggshells, sawdust, wood chips, paper, and cardboard. The composting process is most efficient when there is a proper blending of browns and greens: a ratio of 30 parts browns to one part greens is preferable.
- What must NOT be composted
Some items that you should not place in the compost heap are grease, fat, meat scraps, and bones – they will attract animals and smell bad, besides being slow to break down. Do not include human and pet wastes. Leave out weeds laden with seeds and diseased plants, as some seeds and disease organisms may survive the composting process.
- Preparing material for composting
Shred or cut up all materials to be added to the compost pile. Shred fallen leaves by mowing them before raking.
Your compost pile will develop best when you build it in layers, with the proper proportion of greens and browns. It is a little extra work but worth the effort. In the following order: layer 6 inches of brown material, 2 inches of green material, and 2 inches of soil. Water each layer well as you proceed, then mix the layers together. If you wish to continue layering, collect green and brown materials in bags until you have enough to add to the pile: as the pile matures, stir kitchen scraps and garden materials into it. Remember to add some brown material, and to keep the pile moist like a wet rag. Turn it once a week.
Containing Your Compost
- Compost pile
I learned composting from my grandfather who created an open pile. It was my job to add the kitchen scraps to the pile. This necessitated many extra trips down the garden path to find the vegetable peeler that I usually managed to dump with the peelings. A pile 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep will reach the required temperature. Remember to keep the compost moist, protect it from excess rain, and turn it frequently. I loved to watch my grandfather slicing through the pile with a spade and turning over each slice.
- Compost bins
You can purchase a readymade, freestanding composting bin, often made of plastic, or make your own from cement blocks, used wooden pallets, or scrap lumber. Pile cement blocks without mortar to enable air circulation. An inexpensive option is a wooden box made with four wooden pallets. Use untreated wood to make sure chemicals don’t contaminate your vegetables. Lumber will gradually deteriorate due to the damp compost; replace boards as they decay. For composting leaves, I like a mesh bin made of chicken wire. Stand the chicken wire in a circle and attach the ends using heavy wire for ties. Start with a six inch layer of shredded leaves and add two inches of something green like grass clippings. Turn your pile two or three times before spring, then just lift the wire mesh bin to get at the finished compost at the bottom.
- Turning units
Turning units provide the fastest method of composting. For larger amounts of compost, a three-bin unit will provide you with the finished product in less than a month. Fill the first bin with wastes that you have collected, allowing the compost to reach up to140°F. As it cools, turn the pile into the next bin with a pitchfork. The temperature will increase again and when it starts to drop turn it into the third bin. For smaller amounts of compost you may use a rotating drum or tumbler. Collect enough waste to fill the tumbler to ensure fast composting. Rotate the tumbler every few days.
Testing for Readiness
The compost pile will have shrunk significantly when it is ready. Check that it is no longer hot in the center, looks dark brown, crumbles when squeezed, and smells like fresh soil. You should not be able to recognize the original materials. Use finished compost immediately for amending the soil. Let it age an extra week or two before putting it around delicate plants or using it as a potting medium.
It is fall and there are plenty of leaves and decaying plants to deal with. Take the first step towards a fabulous spring garden by using them to begin your own supply of Black Gold.