The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 13, 2007


A primer on composting

We had one glorious sunny dry weekend, but the days since then have been pretty dismal. Only extremely motivated gardeners can face 40-degree days and drizzle. Looking out at the gray landscape reveals emerging green stems at ground level and some early crocuses and snow drops. The birds are singing and I heard the first peepers. Spring is emerging!

This weekend my husband fed a large quantity of dropped sticks into our chipper. It shreds them so well that they hardly qualify as mulch. We just added the shredded sticks to our huge compost pile.

Speaking of composting, a reader this week asked in an e-mail if I would consider writing an article about composting. She said she personally, and many friends and neighbors, have had various composts. Some work reasonably well; others last one season and others continue on but are marginal at best. In her e-mail she pointed out some of the issues surrounding composting:

· Some people have created open composts and put everything into it, including kitchen greens and various scraps (bones/meat leftovers) as well as weeds, grass clippings and general garden refuse. This has its own set of issues and is worth some discussion.

· Some have kitchen greens, weeds, grass clippings and general garden refuse only. Some are open; some are enclosed — somewhat. Some gardeners have purchased enclosed tumblers through garden catalogs and put a mix of refuse in the tumbler.

· Everybody I know has issues with managing decomposition. Those who include all leftovers from their kitchen along with garden refuse draw unwanted wildlife and Carlisle dogs. This problem warrants some discussion/recommendations. If the Board of Health has guidelines, this might be helpful.

These are very reasonable composting concerns. Some people want to avoid unwanted wildlife, whereas I am equally motivated to avoid unnecessary work. No one wants a compost pile to stink or draw flies. They are rarely an item of beauty, but they are oh, so wonderful! They are magical devices that turn banana peels and piles of leaves into rich dark humus soil enhancers.

Where is the best place for a compost pile? Within close walking distance from your kitchen door. You will be bringing out little buckets of vegetable and fruit peelings on a regular basis, so don't make it too much of a trek. Hide the pile behind something, such as a fence or lattice. The fence both screens the pile and helps to keep it from sprawling into a pyramid. Sun or shade does not matter.

How big a pile do I need? In my opinion you need at least a 3 feet x 3 feet pile. The classic three-bin system helps you keep the old pile for use in the garden while the two newer piles are in various stages of process. I myself have never been that disciplined to use three bins, but it is a tidy and proven system for many gardeners. The trick is to have a volcano shape to catch water not shed it. To maintain the concave center, it is handy to have a pronged fork hand tool to scratch the compost into the correct bowl shape.

What can I do to avoid critters? I never put in bones or fat that will attract animals to my compost pile. While in theory these are biodegradable, and could break down into compost, the smell of meat will bring dogs and other unwanted animals to the compost pile. Sometimes corn cobs and other vegetable debris can bring scavengers to the compost pile. The trick here is to use the fork hand-tool to scrape some boring compost over the tasty compost to bury it.

What is the best ratio of brown matter to green matter? I could look up the answer on the Internet or in one of my gardening books, but what does it matter? I happen to know that you should try to use a great deal more brown matter (dry leaves and dead plant stalks, and paper towels) than green matter (fresh vegetable peelings, grass clippings and weeds), but the ratios don't interest me. I'm not going for the two-week composting claimed by some tumbling barrel-style composting machines. I'm quite content with the multi-year method. I throw stuff on one side of my huge pile, and on the other side the compost has been sitting for several years. I know when I need to use the compost — I just look for the old, dark, crumbly stuff.

How often do I need to mix up the compost pile or add water? Turning the pile speeds up the composting process. Adding small shredded items rather than big chunky things also makes everything break down faster. Adding water to keep the pile moist, but not soggy, helps too. All these interventions can speed up the composting process. None is necessary, as time will take care of these issues. One of the best enhancements to your pile is to not shake off the soil from weeds you pull. The soil clinging to the roots becomes a good boost to the microbial activity in your compost pile.

Is there anything besides meat that should not be put into the compost pile? Yes! Never, ever add invasive viney weeds like bittersweet or fall season seed-infested weeds. They just might grow instead of breaking down into compost. I must sometimes remind my children that plastic spoons and grocery bags will never break down either and do not belong in the compost pile.

Compost piles are easy to maintain and good for the environment. I do not think they warrant any Board of Health edicts. Why not buy a pretty stainless steel bucket with a lid to contain coffee grounds, apple cores and kitchen scraps? Rake up leaves to add some needed "brown matter" to your pile. Raking leaves helps the lawn to grow, makes the yard look tidy, and gives you some exercise. And of course, using the finished compost makes your plants very happy too.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito