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Composting for the Vegetable Garden

by chuck.mcmullan
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Composting is the aerobic decomposition of biodegradable organic matter. It’s one of the soundest ecological practices as it returns plant and animal matter back to the soil in a highly beneficial form.

The most practical place to create a compost pile is in the corner of the garden where it is readily available. Organic matter is piled up and left for approximately 6 months or until decomposed. The end product is like “gold for your garden,” added to the soil to improve fertility and the soil’s ability to retain moisture.

Having your own compost pile is most economical when you use available materials to make it. These materials include leaves, dead plant materials, grass clippings, herbivore animal manures, and kitchen garbage. Never put meat and fats in the compost as they attract wild animals. One of the most consistently available ingredients for your compost is kitchen waste including fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells, and coffee grounds to name a few. Usually there is no need to purchase special compost ingredients, although baled, spoiled hay, for those who live in rural areas is a favorite, easy to use material and is usually not too expensive. Many gardeners keep a bale of hay next to the compost pile and cover the garbage with a pitchfork full of hay.

The fall is a good time to start a compost pile because there is an abundance of materials. If properly cared for, the compost pile will decompose and be ready for use in your garden by late spring or early summer of the following year.

Size:

A compost pile can be a small pile and can become as large as you are willing to manage. Attaching chicken wire to four corner posts will help keep your compost pile more manageable. You can also attach pieces of wood instead of chicken wire, which will hold in the warmth and allow for faster decomposition. A recommended size for the average gardener is a pile at least 3’ X 3’ X 3’.

Location:

It’s most convenient to keep your compost pile near your garden, but this is not always practical due to factors such as the amount of space available. Compost is easily transferable with a wheelbarrow and can be located anywhere in your yard. The location should be level with good drainage, as standing water will inhibit bacterial growth. If possible, avoid direct sunlight and areas exposed to strong winds, which can dry out and cool the pile. A partly sunny location is ideal as long as it receives sufficient rainfall. If located near trees, you may want to consider setting a basic foundation for your compost out of brick or stone to keep roots from growing up into your compost seeking moisture and nutrients. In general, a compost pile should be kept open and moist to avoid bacteria that can cause foul odors. A well-ventilated compost pile will decay more rapidly.

Ingredients:

Keep in mind your compost pile needs to remain balanced. Too much of any one ingredient, such as leaves or grass clippings, will not make for the best compost. A mixture of different materials will help air circulate and provide both carbon and nitrogen. Most professionals recommend a mix of 2/3 carbon-containing materials and 1/3 nitrogen-containing materials. Carbon-containing materials include straw, spoiled hay, wood chips, sawdust, leaves, chopped cornstalks, pine needles, and shredded newspapers. Nitrogen-containing materials include dead plants, grass clippings, weeds, manures, kitchen vegetable waste, and soil layers. Avoid putting meat scraps or fat into the compost, as well as diseased plant materials or those that might harbor insects over the winter, particularly rose foliage (black spot), iris (iris borer), and cabbage (clubroot). Perennial plants and invasive weeds can be a nightmare, as the seeds may not always decompose. Also if you treat your lawn with a weed killer or any type of chemicals, the first two or three rounds of grass clippings should be kept out of the compost, as the smallest amount of weed killer can kill a tomato plant. For more specific information relating to common compost ingredients please see the chart below:

Percent Dry Weight
MaterialNitrogen (N)Phosphoric Oxide (P)Potash (K)
Blood Meal10.0 - 14.01.0 - 5.0----
Bone Meal (steamed)2.023.0----
Coffee Grounds2.10.30.3
Cottonseed Meal6.62.0 - 3.01.0 - 2.0
Eggshells1.20.40.1
Garbage2.0 - 2.91.1 - 1.30.8 - 2.2
Grass Clippings2.4--------
Grass Clippings / Weeds2.01.12.0
Manure (dry)
Horse1.21.01.6
Cattle2.01.02.0
Poultry5.01.91.2
Salt Marsh Hay1.10.30.8
Seaweed (dry)1.70.84.9
Sewage Sludge (digested)2.01.50.2
Wood Ash (unbleached)----1.1 - 2.0 4.0 - 10.0

Compost table

How do I know when my compost is ready for use?

Compost is ready for use when it smells earthy and has a rich brown appearance. There may still be some big pieces of organic matter in the pile that haven’t fully decomposed and a sieve (2-inch screen) may be useful for removing these pieces for further composting. Compost can be added to the soil anywhere you plan to plant such as the vegetable garden, flowerbeds, or shrubbery borders. To add the compost, simply rake the material on in layers and work into the soil until you’ve reached a thickness of about 2-3 inches. It is important to use the compost when it’s ready, as it’s not stable and will not last for long periods of time. Once the compost has been added to your garden year after year, the soil should become easily workable and fertile, and will hold soil moisture extremely well. If this level of soil is reached, you are sure to have a hearty harvest! Another benefit of using compost in your garden is the presence of earthworms. Earthworm tunneling helps aeration and their castings help to make the soil more granular, especially topsoil. Earthworms also have some influence on nutrient availability.

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