Confessions of a reformed composter
Do your eyes glaze over as you read home composting recipes? Do you wonder if an advanced degree in chemistry is necessary to make respectable home compost?
“Home composting is no more complicated than baking a cake,” said University of Illinois Extension educator Sandy Mason. “Once a gardener understands the basic principles of home composting, they can use the materials they have available and the methods that best suit them to make their compost.”
Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic materials (stuff that was once alive) using aerobic bacteria (ones that need oxygen, not the smelly anaerobic kind) and fungi, but also protozoans, millipedes, beetles and worms.
Compost happens. “Organic matter decomposition takes place whether we are around or not,” Mason noted. “However, as gardeners we can speed the composting process and have the finished compost retain the most plant nutrients.
“When I first started composting, I made just about every mistake possible,” Mason confessed. “My first composting attempt was a 4 x 4 x 4-foot pile of the autumn leaves so abundantly available this time of year. I did eventually get some compost at the bottom of the pile, but it took over two years.”
Mason shared these simple steps to speed the composting process of autumn leaves:
• Shred leaves; small particle size equals a faster decomposition rate.
• Moisten leaves while building the pile.
• Minimum size pile is 3 x 3 x 3 feet with a maximum of 5 x 5 x 5 feet.
• Add a layer of green materials such as vegetable scraps, plant trimmings, or grass clippings over each 6- to 8-inch layer of leaves. Materials that tend to mat, such as grass clippings, should be either mixed in or placed in 2- to 3-inch layers within this 6-8-inch layer.” A great mix of materials for the pile is one part grass, vegetable scraps, or plant clippings to two to three parts autumn leaves, depending on leaf moisture,” Mason recommended.
• Sprinkle finished compost or garden soil over each green layer. “No need to buy compost starters,” Mason noted. “Compost or garden soil possesses all the necessary microbes and creatures to start the composting process.”
• Turn or mix the pile. The interior temperature of the pile should increase as decomposition takes place. When the temperature starts to decrease, the pile should be mixed or turned (top layer becomes the bottom layer) to continue the decomposition process. “Managing a compost pile is just helping the microbes to do their job by providing the food, moisture and oxygen they need,” she said.
Not everything should be added, Mason said. “Leave out items such as meat and bones, which can attract rodents, raccoons, cats and dogs. Dog and cat manure should also be left out because it can carry disease organisms. Also leave out twigs bigger than 1/2 inch and rose-bush trimmings. “Although a well-managed pile should kill most disease organisms, leave out obviously diseased plants as well as weeds with seeds or rhizomes,” she said.
“Finished compost is ‘black gold’ to gardeners,” Mason said. “Compost is a great soil conditioner to loosen heavy clay soils and improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soils. It replenishes the beneficial microbes and fungi in the soil as well as adding essential plant nutrients.
“Compost feeds the soil that feeds your plants,” she said.
Visit the University of Illinois Extension Composting for the Homeowner website for more information on composting.