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Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - March 2008

Make the Most of Compost

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Make the Most Of Compost

How does your garden grow? With kitchen scraps and grass clippings, naturally.
Cheryl Denton of Tennessee started composting two years ago so she could have a healthful source of fertilizer for her garden while also reducing her household waste. "We already recycled, and I thought composting could take it a step further. I wanted to use our garbage for something good," she explains.

Denton saves all her fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, leaves from her neighbor's yard and even a coworker's coffee grounds for her compost pile. Once a week she heads outside with her dog, puts on her work gloves and turns over the compost pile. "Working the pile is therapeutic," she says. "People don't believe me, but compost smells so good, like rich earth."

Successful gardening starts with feeding the soil, and the very best materials for nourishing your garden beds come from an unlikely source—your own home and yard. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food scraps and yard trimmings account for about 25 percent of all the waste generated in the United States.

"Composting gives you the opportunity to recycle and reuse garbage that's generated right at home," says Barbara Pleasant, coauthor of The Complete Compost Gardening Guide (Storey Publishing, 2008). "When you compost, that waste never even leaves your yard.

"Composting is nature's way of recycling organic materials into a nutrient-rich soil amendment called humus, which improves sandy or clay soil, enhances water retention so you can water less and feeds plants so they grow healthy and strong.

Composting can be as easy or as complicated as you like, but all you really need to get started are scraps and a place to put them. Some gardeners simply make a big pile in an out-of-the way spot, close enough to the house to be convenient but far enough away that it's not unsightly. Others build or buy bins to contain the compost and protect it from the elements. A pitchfork or shovel is helpful for turning the pile and incorporating oxygen.

  • What to put into the pile: Fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells from the kitchen; shredded white paper, newspaper (no shiny ads, but newsprint is fine), and torn-up toilet paper and paper towel tubes from the house; plant trimmings, autumn leaves, grass clippings and twigs from the yard.
  • What to leave out: Meat, oil and dairy products, which don't break down quickly, smell bad and attract unwanted pests. Avoid weeds that have gone to seed because they'll only produce more weeds.

If your compost pile stinks, try burying kitchen scraps in the material from the yard, suggests Jessica Walliser, coauthor of Grow Organic (St. Lynn's Press, 2007).

Spring is an excellent time to start a compost pile, since you're already pulling weeds and mowing the lawn. "You'll find yourself with a pile of trimmings all of a sudden," Pleasant says. "You can put it out in the trash or you can compost it. "In the Southeast your pile will compost year-round, but it will do so more quickly in the warmer months.

Tiny microorganisms need four things to break down organic material into rich, brown, crumbly humus: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture. Carbon comes from "brown" materials such as leaves, straw and wood; nitrogen comes from "green" materials such as kitchen scraps, grass and coffee grounds. "People are sometimes confused about the proportion of carbon and nitrogen needed to make good compost, but basically you need two to three times more brown materials than green materials in your pile," Walliser says.

Because composting is an aerobic process, the microorganisms need oxygen to do their work. Air holes in the compost bin help, as does occasionally turning the pile with a pitchfork or shovel to incorporate air all the way into the center. Finally, compost should be kept about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, which keeps the microorganisms alive without drowning them.

"Compost is finished when it smells good, looks good and feels like nice, dark, rich, crumbly earth," Walliser says. "The original ingredients should be unrecognizable. "If you do nothing to your pile but add scraps, it may take up to a year to finish. But if you actively work the pile, turning it and monitoring the green/brown ratio and moisture content, it could be finished in as little as a month.

Once the compost is ready, Pleasant suggests sprinkling a little on the soil surface before planting anything. "You're invigorating the soil food web," she says. A layer of compost benefits everything from your vegetable garden to your flower beds and lawn, and your only problem may be deciding which beds get the benefit of the precious humus that was once a pile of garbage.

As Denton will tell you, once you start composting, you'll be hooked. She started off just wanting to improve her garden beds, but now composting has become a hobby in itself. "My husband and daughter think I'm a fanatic," she says with a laugh. "When we were on vacation in Georgia for a week, I couldn't bear to throw away all of our fruit and vegetable scraps, so I brought them home in the cooler for my compost pile."

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