Friday, January 27, 2012

Mostly about Composting...

When we bought our house a few years ago, I built a compost bin and stuck in a shady area out of the way in our back yard. I didn't know much about composting, but picked a few tips and hints along the way. Mostly I just threw in whatever was on hand: orange peels, leaves, weeds, worms, coffee grounds, and other eclectic ingredients. It's been three years and mostly by luck there is some good dirt there. It will all be used in this coming spring for starting plants and topping off the raised bed, though, so I am delving deeper into the dirty issue. I will need to have more or else start buying some over the next year.
One easy solution is to just build more compost heaps, which am doing. In all I'll have three heaps side by side about 15-20 feet long and 4 feed wide. When I write this it seems like a lot, but in the back corner of the back yard it isn't that much. It also is my way of trying to block some of the neighbors morning glories that always climb the fence and sprawl about in our yard. As they climb over the compost, I think (hope?) that I will be much more diligent about informing them that their home is on the other side and casting them forth into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Also, I want to be much more informed. Therefore, condensing my studies to three books and four Google searches, this is what I've found. It sounds simple, yet workable.

The compost ingredients are divided into two categories based on their age and composition called green or brown. Green ingredients - usually green - are young, moist, fresh materials. They are the most active decomposers. Examples: apple peels, carrot tops, bread, grass clippings, weeds, outer cabbage leaves and dead chipmunks. Brown ingredients are usually older and drier (browner too) such as dried grass, old cornstalks, and dried vines. I also include leaves in this, but there is a distinction here and I'll go into that later. According to Eliot Coleman (yes, he has an opinion about this also) straw is the best brown ingredient of all. "The advantage of straw is that it will almost guarantee the success of your composting efforts."
The theory or system behind the compost bin is a layering technique. This traps the heat in and also reproduces the natural environment where the microorganisms, which are necessary for the decomposition, thrive. Our goal is brown layer, green layer, soil, brown layer, green layer, soil, and so on until the bin is full. Then, this is my favorite part, wait!
What we are shooting for.
The depth of each layer depends on what it is that is being put into the compost. You wouldn't want to put in 3" of matted leaves or 6" of grass clippings because they will condense and not allow the pile to breath. If air cannot get into the pile, then it will have problems. As a rule of thumb, the looser ingredients can be tossed in more abundantly and denser materials that tend to mat together should be layered thinly. "The addition of soil to a compost heap has both a physical and a microbiological effect: physical because certain soil constituents (clay particles and minerals) have been shows to enhance the decomposition of organic matter; microbiological because soil contains millions of microorganisms, which are needed to break down the organic material in the heap." I don't know what half of the big words mean, but I am going to put dirt as a layer and pretend like I do.

In The Four Season Harvest Chapter 3, there is a lot of info about temperatures, combinations of ideal balances of carbon and nitrogen and something about aerobics (requiring air). All I say is "I believe" I don't understand, but... I have a small story to explain "I believe" that hopefully won't bore you, but you can skip to the next paragraph if you'd like to
      A long time ago in a state far away...when I was in the Navy (I was an aviation electronic technician, which is a really long cool name for someone who works on the electronics in airplanes) we had 6 months of schooling on how electricity and wiring works. Some stuff was comprehensible, then there was the rest. Why does electrical current on DC only go one way? We learned to push the "I believe" button. Don't ask why, just believe. This applies to many things in life - such as composting.

Now back to the richly dirty details. Leaves can be their own compost heap. I don't like the idea because it means another bin, but here is the idea and you can use it if you'd like to. Due to the fact that most fall leaves will mat together easily, inhibiting the decomposition and making leaf mold, I mow my leaves and them toss them, all small and fluffy into the compost heap. There is another way. Put your autumn leaves in a pile for 2-3 years, wetting them if they dry out. Compaction won't hinder leaf mold, so pack 'em in tight. Then, when it is a nice pile of leaf mold, put it on Brassacaceae/cabbage families or on carrot/Apiaceae families. They will love your extra effort.

Lastly, it's always best to keep the bad news until last, problems in your compost. If the heap starts to smell, you have problems,. A perfect balance with decomposition happening doesn't have any odors. However, if it start to, here is the answer. If it smells like sewage or like something crawled in and died, there is too much green and not enough air. Just turn the heap adding in lots of brown. If on the other hand it smells like ammonia, add more green. This means that the heap is too dry and isn't decomposing. The last tip is that sometimes the bacteria just are multiplying fast enough. Add some organic high-nitrogen liquied fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Dissolve into water, poke holes in the compost, and pour in like medicine. (home remedies include molasses, sour milk, or other bacterial foods)

So, that's the all I've got to go on for now. It will be nice pulling out all of that black gold in a couple of years!

Also, before I go, the Tacoma Home and Garden Show is at the Tacoma Dome this week. I plan on trying to make it tomorrow (if the girls want to cooperate). It should be fun and hopefully I'll get some good advice, plants, ideas, and even pictures.

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