Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Perfect Compost for your Garden!

When yeast compost is worked into garden soils, those soils change. Compost joins with molecules of clay (something we particularly enjoy here in Ohio!), and the compost-clay glue together. Stable and rich, and believe it or not with the fragrance of a deep pine forest after an afternoon rain, compost retains 90 percent of its moisture, making it extremely useful when we forget to water our gardens. Compost also helps build soil structure by allowing for quite a lot of air circulation and air is vital to keep not only us alive, but our precious soil as well. Now I am not one to usually go out to my garden with pH paper—I just look at the kinds of weeds that a growing—so the good news is that I really don’t have to—thanks to compost. This gold moderates the pH of garden soil, keeping it in balance between a 6.0-6.8 range that is ideal for most garden vegetables and beautiful flowers. For those of us who want to provide the healthiest vegetables for our children, compost has the ability to absorb toxins present in the soil! As it absorbs these toxins, it provides at the same time a welcoming environment for beneficial organisms.

Everything that is or was once alive will come apart of your compost pile and turn into this black gold. Kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, thick ropes of weeds, old potting soil, branches, leaves, left-over supper, dust, herbivore animal manure (not dog and cat, in other words), human hair, saw dust, Kleenex, old love letters, newspaper that is not glossy, even old wool sweaters. These ingredients will “live again” in our compost pile and nourish the microbes in our “live” garden soil.

The most important ingredient to add to a compost pile is air. Air allows our compost pile to decay aerobically, so that we don’t get that ammonia smell. When we smell that, precious nitrogen, which should remain in the compost, drifts into the atmosphere and is therefore not readily available in our compost and hence for our nitrogen-loving garden vegetables.

The next fundamental ingredient is water. Air, of course is the fuel for our garden, but water provides structure as well as a flowing passageway for nutrients and organisms. The old saying is that “good compost is as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Too much water is not good either. As my mentor in life, Michel de Montaigne would say, balance in everything is always something to strive for!

After air and water, the primary ingredients that make up or compost is what we call either carbon or nitrogen ingredients. Carbon—like ‘carbs’ for human nutrition—is where the energy comes from. When you feel the heat of a good compost pile, think of the fact that carbon is being digested by the billions of wonderful microorganisms in our pile. What are the carbon ingredients of our compost pile? Anything brown. Straw, shredded office documents, sawdust, woodchips, dry stems of old pea vines, flowers, sunflower stalks, peanut shells, etc.

Now the other side of the spectrum—nitrogen. If carbon is the energy, nitrogen is the protein. Nitrogen is of course responsible for the growth of healthy vegetable tissue. Nitrogen ingredients in the compost pile are wet and green—fresh seedless weeds, kitchen garbage, and here we add manure. Please compost manure rather than tossing it in your gardens or in your raised beds. While it looks brown, it really does fall under our green category, as the food the animals ate (cows, chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, horses) were once mostly green.

What about the balance of brown and green? We know what happens to us if we eat too many beans? We are overwhelming our stomachs with nitrogen. We need that balance of carbon and nitrogen. I mentioned ammonia that we can smell. That is too much nitrogen (“compost farts”) being released into the air. I have read and still believe that the proper ratio in our diets and in our compost pile ideally should be 30 parts carbon (“carbs”) to 1 part nitrogen (“protein”). If you have a bunch of green kitchen waste and you want to toss it onto a compost pile, have next to your pile as black bag of old oaks leaves or a bale of straw. Add that on top of the green waste in what looks like 30 times more brown stuff than green stuff.

As far as the location of your compost pile, it is best to stack it in a shady spot, not too far from your kitchen or a garden hose. Remember, air is important. That is why there are slats in wooden compost bin. My favorite compost material is hardware wire. The end result looks like a 5x3 foot high drum. I like this because I don’t have to toss and turn the compost so much, if any at all. Air gets through wires and into the compost. If you just throw the compost on the ground, you will have to turn the pile with a pitchfork once a week or so. When that layered drum is finished, leave it be. Water it on occasion, but make a new one right next to it. It is so enjoyable to watch our layer compost turn a deep brown color from the bottom up over time through the fenced drum! If we begin a compost drum in the spring, it is ready to be put into our soil in the fall, etc. If you want compost quickly, put it on the ground in a pile. You can make it a “hot, quick compost” by then tossing and turning it 2 or 3 times a week. I prefer not to use those plastic tumblers. I feel that sunlight is the essence of life. Compost needs to feel and be beholden to the light of day and the dark of night.

As we are a practicing biodynamic farm, we add healing herbs to our compost pile when our bins are full. These herbs—yarrow, stinging nettle, and more—add “vital forces” from the universe (moonlight, stars, our sun) to our compost pile. Regardless, you cannot go wrong with adding compost with our without biodynamic preparations to your garden and into our precious earth to heal Her. Your backyard compost seems small, but it is an enormous gesture and certainly the earth thanks you, but so will your body and soul.

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