The year 2020 is here! Think green, recycle, reuse, eat clean, conserve water, grow organic, to bee or not to bee — all are worth pondering as we enter our new decade. Another way to be good stewards of the earth is composting. Consider these benefits:
1. Home compost is the absolute best soil amendment there is for our Colorado soils (it can also be used as mulch).
2. It is a way to reduce the volume of organic wastes and return them to the soil to improve the chance of growing healthy plants.
3. It helps reduce waste.
4. It reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
5. Compost encourages the production of beneficial bacteria that breaks down organic matter to create humus (pronounced hyoo-muhs), which is great for the garden.
6. It enriches the soil, helps retain moisture and suppresses plant diseases and pests.
7. It helps reduce methane emissions from landfills and lowers our carbon footprint.
8. It is cheap, easy and fun!
Here is a list of acceptable composting material: Fruits and vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, nut shells, cardboard (torn/shredded into smaller pieces), paper, yard trimmings (woody twigs and branches that are greater than ¼ inch in diameter should first be put through a shredder-chipper). Avoid highly resinous wood and leaf material from plants such as junipers, pine, spruce and arborvitae. The resins protect these materials from decomposition and extend the time needed for composting. High tannin-containing leaves (oak and cottonwood) can be used in small quantities if chopped well. Non-diseased houseplants, hay, straw, leaves, sawdust, wood chips, cotton and wool rags, dryer and vacuum cleaner lint, hair and fur.
What not to compost and why: Black walnut tree leaves, twigs and coal or charcoal ash release substances that might be harmful to plants. All dairy products — eggs, fats, grease, lard, oils, all meats, fish bones and scraps — create odor problems and attract disease carrying pests such as rodents and flies. Diseased or insect-ridden plants should never be composted as the diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to plants. Pet wastes should not be used because they can contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans. Lastly, yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides shouldn’t be added as they might kill beneficial composting organisms.
Choose a composting site carefully. Partial shade avoids baking and drying in summer but provides some solar heat to start the composting action. A site protected from drying winds prevents moisture loss. Think in terms of where material will be used, with wheelbarrow access but not highly visible or that may interfere with the aesthetics of the yard.
Structures aren’t necessary for composting but do prevent wind and wildlife from carrying away plant material. Structures can be purchased or built. They can be as simple as a secured chicken wire ring to a used pallet three compartmental system. The internet has many structural ideas to choose from.
All composting requires three basic ingredients:
• Browns — Dead leaves, branches, and twigs.
• Greens — Vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds.
The compost pile should have an equal amount of browns to greens. Alternating layers of organic materials of different-sized particles is best. The brown materials provide carbon, the green materials provide nitrogen, and the water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter.
Oxygen and water are critical elements in the composting process. To speed decomposition, moisten materials as they are placed in the compost bin. Keep compost moist, but not waterlogged. Oxygen penetration is key to decomposition. Infiltration rates are a factor of particle size and bin size.
Active compost reaches temperatures ranging from 70-130°F in the center. Disease organisms die at 122°F. Heating is essential because it stimulates the bacterial process and helps keep the interior of the compost free from weed seed and plant-disease organisms. It is common practice to regularly turn compost with a pitchfork or shovel. Frequent turning speeds decomposition but isn’t required to make compost.
In Colorado, it’s best not to turn compost after December; it allows the inner heat to escape and may stop processing in cold weather. Processing occurs faster when materials are mixed together, rather than layered in the bin.
Compost is ready to use when it has shrunk to one-half its original volume, has lost the identity of the original material, and has a pleasant earthy smell.
“My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.” — Bette Midler.
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)