What’s the big deal about composting? Discovering how to grow high quality food, very fast is one answer. I have gardened most of my life, but not until this last year after a Farmer-To-Farmer trip to South Africa did I ever want or see the need to change my ways.
Now we are trying to come up with all sorts of simple ideas that could help poverty stricken people, or anyone as far as that goes, to grow their own food, faster, with less work all coupled with high growing production in very small places. Oh, by the way I forgot to mention we are also trying to accomplish this for nothing, at no cost, in other words — researching humanitarian gardening methods.
So far, I have learned that you cannot grow food, fast and free without the use of homemade blended compost. We need to come up with a mixture of at least five different major categories of organic matter; all mixed together and well composted to accomplish this.
The photo of my hand, above, holds homegrown compost, which is converted lawn grass clippings, aged cow manure and fresh vegetable trimmings into humus, which is the end product of composting.
Notice how crumbly the soil looks, which is called friable. Compost holds lots of water, it’s full of a wide range of plant nutrients and more important to speed plant growth, it does not compact like native soils. Also a new garden rule is you never ever step on this kind of homegrown garden soil. Just ask my poor two-year-old grandkids.
Composting is nature’s simple soil building process that is happening right under our feet all the time. Composting is another word for rotting and compost is another word for nutrients.
A bazaar example of this is the 17-year locust (periodical cicada a member of the family related to leaf hoppers). They hatch from a forest floor once every 17 years. They live and reproduce at a population reaching 1.5 million bugs per acre, and then they all die at once. They rot (composting) and become the single largest dose of fertilizer (compost) for these trees, in the natural world, resulting in a large spurt of growth.
The making of compost is simple, yet it seems complicated to some, as I have people have come up to me and said. “I started my compost pile and deer ate everything.”
To start off, we need to know what the composting process entails. You need air, water, carbon (carbohydrates in the form of dry organic matter), nitrogen (protein in the form of green organic matter), livestock manure, heat (generated from billions of naturally occurring microorganisms), and time.
Composting is the breakdowns (decomposition) of course organic matter by billions of invisible critters (bacteria, actinomycetes, protozoa, fungi) that are present in all soils, these hard working animals use nitrogen as their energy source to decompose (eat) organic waste material releasing more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, plus other benefits.
This is the core beauty behind humanitarian gardening, as the key ingredient, compost, comes from what most people view as waste. This waste includes piles of fall leaves, old beds of leaf mold, kitchen vegetables trimmings, grass cuttings, plant stems, moldy straw, old hay, sawdust, plant roots, livestock manure, overripe fruit, egg shells, plus a host of other items usually thrown away or in the garbage. I no longer see these materials as waste, but as unused energy going to waste. What a waste around the world as our food prices soar. This energy with a little ingenuity could end up feeding millions of people instead of filling up our dumps and sewer systems.
How do you make compost in the wintertime?
Walk around your yard. Look for a convenient location close to your house and garden. Find a sunny warm spot, naturally protected from the weather elements like cold wind. You can help Mother Nature by stacking some straw or hay bales or wooden boxes in a horseshoe shape facing the south. Remember the warmer the better for winter composting.
Start by making a compost pile in alternate layers. Place sticks or course stems on the bottom to let more air into the lower layers of the pile. Add a 4-to 6-inch layer of dry material such as leaves, straw or dry lawn grass. Next add a layer of green organic matter such as kitchen vegetable cuttings, green plants with their root systems, and or livestock manure in a two inch layer. Avoid the use of dog or cat droppings. Keep alternating these layers until you build a heap about 2.5 to three feet tall.
The best compost will be made up with a minimum of five different organic sources, shoot for 20 per cent of each ingredient. Let this pile set a while undisturbed and feel inside to see if it’s warm. Watch out, it can become hot, like 120-150F (50-65C) or so.
Keep the air moving through this pile as this is a very important step called aerobic reaction. If you don’t have oxygen moving throughout the pile, anaerobic reaction happens and the pile can become smelly and moldy. Things will still rot, but not very fast.
Keep particle size small to speed up composting. Chop up large stems, big leaves, fruits and vegetables. It helps if you can run over dry organic matter with your lawn mower which shreds material.
Keep your compost in a heap. Stack it in a convenient area like a round snow fence (10 to 15 feet in length) or three wooden pallets strapped together located in a sheltered place. You need to have bulk in a pile 3 foot by 3 foot at a minimum for best results.
Keep the pile wet like a sponge, especially the dry materials. After the pile has heated up for a week or so, turn it over — inside out with a pitchfork or spade. The more you move the pile the faster it digests itself. One way to tell if things are working your pile will shrink in size.
Here is a tip for us lazy gardeners. I take my old rototiller out of hibernations. We don’t use this nosey, fuel burning, cantankerous contraption with the Square Foot Gardening method since we don’t dig, shovel or hardly have to weed anymore. Nice if your goal is less work, more fun, faster growth, and high food production. Besides I cannot get my large rototiller into our small four feet by four feet boxes and I don’t use our native soils anymore. There is no need to till.
The tip is, I now rototill the compost pile to add air and mix ingredients. This labor saving action spreads the pile out over a larger area. Then I just shovel it back into its original pile.
Another tip is keep adding new ingredients to one end of the pile and use the finished compost from the other end of the pile. That way you always have an ongoing system at work.
As far as time goes, if you don’t turn your pile over once in a while it may take over one year to arrive at useable compost. So move it, mix it, and air it often. Wintertime cold temperatures do slow things down, but you will be way ahead of the game come next spring as rotting will continue during this freezing and thawing time period.
Compost, a natural organic soil, made for free from wasted material is one of the most important over-looked energy sources of our times. It has the ability to aid us in surviving economical hard times and to self save feeding hungry people around the world.
Wayne Burleson is a land management consultant working out of Absarokee, Montana. You can visit with Wayne at 406-328-6808 or E-mail him at [email protected]Wayne has an educational web site at http://www.pasturemanagement.com.Wayne is updating his website. It’s worth a visit and be sure to watch the video.