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Friday, April 4, 2008

Slow Burning Compost

One very easy thing you can do to reduce your impact on the planet, and bolster your gardening efforts, is to compost. Compost makes rich fertilizer and mulch out of yard waste, food scraps, tree trimmings, old lumber and even certain types of paper.

Pick a Good Location:

In hot, dry climates, it should be a shady, cooler location. In cold or wet climates, it should be a well-ventilated location.

Break Up the Ground a Bit:
You don't have to dig the location, but aerate the top layer of soil and completely remove weeds. If this is your first pile in the area, you may wish to add some worms: Red worms are best, but nightcrawlers will do.

Start with a Layer of Small Sticks or Brush:
The idea is to trap some air pockets at the bottom.

Build Your Pile in Layers:
When possible, alternate layers of brown materials and green materials. The mixing of carbon (brown) and nitrogen (green) wastes fosters breakdown. A layer of green grass, covered with a layer of wood chips or dead leaves, works well. Paper and cardboard is carbon. Coffee is nitrogen.

Chop Up Big Things:
Fruit rinds, over-the-hill garden plants, etc. all break down faster when chopped up. Try a machete: sharper blade equals much less work.

Keep the Pile Damp:
Not wet, damp. In areas with dry seasons, sprinkle the entire pile for no more than five minutes a couple of times a week in the evening.

No Meat or Fat:
Fatty table scraps or meat leftovers tend to attract pests. Bread, some chips and crackers and most tortillas seem ok.

Make Your Pile as Big as Possible:
Bigger piles burn hotter. Anything much smaller than roughly three feet in diameter will break down very slowly, and may not break down completely in any amount of time. Lawn cuttings break down relatively fast.

Crack the Thing Open Once in a While:
This doesn't mean turn the pile upside down. Just break it open with a spading fork, a rake or a shovel. Let some air in.

Keep Building:
Depending on the size of your yard and the amount of waste you generate, the pile will take 4-12 months to produce a meaningful amount of compost. Get materials where you can. Perhaps a neighbor with a big yard can help.

Keep a Tub in Your Kitchen:
A one-gallon plastic ice-cream bucket seems about the right size. Keep the lid on when not in use; empty regularly. People with more class should purchase a special "compost crock' for their kitchen. Put all your vegetable trimmings in there.

Be Picky About Your Materials:
Never put Bermuda Grass or other really tough, noxious weeds in your pile. Beware of vines, burrs, any seed heads or root-runner plants and other potential fringe survivors. Watch out for heavily fertilized or pesticide laden lawn clippings.

Without building specific apparatus, the easiest way is with a screen or a series of screens, and a big wheelbarrow. Place the screen over the wheelbarrow. Shovel the compost on. Shake or scrape with shovel to force the compost through. Keep going until the barrow is full or until you have all you need. Use while fresh to take advantage of teeming microbial life. Keep the screening discards for re-composting.

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