Composting makes garden beautiful

Published 12:22 am Saturday, April 21, 2012

Jerry Howard turned his compost bin on Thursday.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle – residents hear these words all the time, but one local resident takes it to the next level, through composting.

Andalusia’s Jerry Howard and his wife, the Rev. Cindy Howard, practice composting.

Composting is simply managing the natural breakdown or decomposition of organic materials to work faster.

The couple has a composting pile in their back yard that they use in their raised beds to grow zucchini, tomatoes, herbs and more.

“I’ve been doing this for several years,” he said. “I got started with a community garden in Kansas City, Mo.”

Howard said there are between 20-40 community gardens in the Kansas City area.

The Howards, who moved to Andalusia last year, said there was already a compost pile in their back yard, but they have actively used it.

Howard said composting is less expensive than buying soil, and everything is recyclable.

“We use the compost in our raised beds,” he said. “We also return the unused lettuce and other vegetables to the pile, so it goes full circle.”


How to compost

The first step is to select a bin. The Howards have a wooden bin with a type of chicken wire inside to provide air to the compost.

The ideal size for the pile should be at least three to four feet high and should be three to four feet wide.

Make sure the bin is placed in an area that receives equal amounts of sun and shade.

It’s not necessary to have a structure for a compost; it can be made in an open pile. Still, a structure helps keep the pile neat and in a size and shape that will allow it to heat up in the middle and decompose faster.

Then one must gather materials.

“You’ll need greens such as grass clippings, garden plants and kitchen wastes,” Howard said. “And browns such as dried leaves, straw and wood chips.”

Next, you’ll need to mix the ingredients together and layer in three to six inch layers, and add up to a half a cup garden fertilizer per bushel of material. Soil may also be added as a source of decomposers.

A guideline for mixing is three parts leaves, one part grass, a small amount of soil and enough water to keep it as moist as a damp sponge.

If it doesn’t rain, the pile must be watered.


What to put in the compost pile

In addition to the greens and browns, kitchen waste is a major component of composting.

“We add things like lettuce, table scraps and egg shells to the pile,” Howard said. “Ours also has a little bit of horse manure.”

Almost any organic kitchen waster like food scraps and paper can be composted.

However, meat, bones and foods high in oils and fat can generate foul odors.

They are also attractive to a wide range of insect and animal pests.

Vegetable and fruit scraps, eggs shells and coffee grounds are much better to compost.

Howard said since their yard is fenced in, they haven’t had any trouble with “critters,” but said that some people must put cover on their piles to keep pests away.


Turning dirt

“It helps to turn it once a week or so,” he said.

By turning the pile, fresh organic matter, in essence food for microorganisms, is more uniformly distributed to those organisms. This promotes more rapid and uniform decomposition than simply letting the pile rot.

A frequently turned and carefully managed compost pile can decompose in weeks while a neglected pile can take a year or more to produce a finished compost.

Compost is ready when the ingredients have broken down into fine particles, which are unrecognizable as leaves or plant matter.

A ready to use compost, looks dark, and is crumbly and smells sweet and earthy.

“It smells like soil,” Howard said. “Then it’s ready to be put into your beds.”


Composting don’ts

• Don’t use meat or dairy products, fats or oils;

• Don’t use dog or cat feces or human wastes;

• Don’t empty cat litter into the bin;

• Don’t add weeds that have gone to seeds;

• Don’t add Bermuda or quackgrass;

• Don’t use clippings treated with herbicides


Basic composting troubleshooting

Symptom: The compost has a bad odor. Solution: There is not enough air and it needs to be turned.

Symptom: The center of the pile is dry. Solution: It needs more water. Moisten the material while turning the pile.

Symptom: The compost is damp and warm in the middle, but nowhere else. Solution: Compost pile is too small. It should collect more material and mix in the old ingredients.

Symptom the heap is damp and sweet-smelling, but still will not heat up. Solution: Lack of nitrogen; it needs a mixture of grass, blood meal or ammonium sulfate.

Melissa Wise of the Covington County Extension Office said that composting is gaining in popularity, and they receiving a lot of inquires about it.

For more information on composting, one may contact the Covington County Extension Office at 222-1125.