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How to Build a Better Compost Heap and Improve the Ecological Balance of Your Soil to Produce Succulent Vegetables and Beautiful Flowers

Compost is the natural method for creating fertile, productive soil. The key to good compost is to balance the nitrogen and carbon contents of your compost heap. However, the process doesn’t stop there. The pile needs to heat up – but not too much. It needs to be damp, but not too wet. And it needs to be aerated to promote speedy and appropriate decay. And one last final condition: A healthy colony of earthworms in both an indicator of your compost’s health and a beneficial addition to creating fertile humus for your garden.

Creating Compost to Nurture Your Soil

Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening describes compost as “a soft warm bosom” where “a transformation from life to death and back again is taking place.” Compost is created when organic materials decay. Forests and meadows do this naturally as leaves and grass stems fall onto the earth and are incorporated into the soil. Animal carcasses and feces also naturally combine with the vegetation. Almost any natural substance can be composted – but some combinations are more ideal than others for creating garden soil.

What you will need to create a garden-friendly compost

  • A large area or a container for the composting material
  • Carbon-rich natural materials
  • Nitrogen-rich natural materials
  • Shovel
  • Pitchfork
  • Earthworms (moderately optional)

How to create, tend and use compost

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1. Create a space for your compost

1. A well-constructed compost should not have any bad odors. However, it can be unsightly. Compost bins can be purchased from almost any hardware or home & garden store. Their construction can range from a log-cabin style bin created from scrap wood gleaned from clearing your garden space to space-age digesters that slice, dice, mince, mix and even heat the organic material to speed production.

My personal favorite is the Redmon Green Culture 65-Gallon Compost Bin. It’s black plastic exterior facilitates warming up the contents, its sturdy construction and lid keep neighborhood stray cats, opossums and other varmints from digging through it and scattering the pile. Handy doors are provided at the bottom of the bin to facilitate removing finished compost, while allowing new material to be added at the top.

Another urban solution is the Mantis CT02001 Compact ComposTumbler Compost Bins. It is quite a bit pricier than the Redmon, but has the advantage of being set up with a tumbler crank that makes turning your compost a breeze. You will, however, need to either moisten the pile or add green trimmings frequently to keep the decay process going.

You can even create or locate a city apartment composter. For example the Compost Wizard, which has a ½ gallon capacity, is ideal for winter use or for the city dweller who has only a window garden. It is sleek, attractive, and locks in the odors that might have nosy relatives asking questions like, “What is that smell?”

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2. Collect the Materials to Be Composted

If you have a lawn and a garden, you probably have no shortage of materials to compost. Even in a small apartment, it is easy to find compostable materials – potato peelings, the outer leaves of cabbages and coffee grounds are three excellent examples. Lawn clippings, dry leaves (with a few exceptions), wood chips, and similar materials are all excellent for composting. You can even add some types of paper and cardboard. Avoid colored papers as the dyes are often toxic. Balance carbon sources with nitrogen sources. For example, kitchen scraps are likely to be high in nitrogen, whereas dry leaves are a good source of carbon. Feces is high in nitrogen, but pet droppings should not be added to compost intended for vegetable gardening because of the risk of cross-species pathogens. Bones and meat scraps will also add nitrogen, but have a higher risk of odors and are likely to attract scavengers. Corn cobs, sawdust and even dryer lint can add to the carbon content. Avoid any materials that have been sprayed with insecticide or herbicide as these will produce that ugly substance that has been dubbed “killer compost.” Or, in other words, compost that will kill broadleaf plants and beneficial insects.

3. Shred your materials into small pieces – unless you have a large composter.

Shredding or chopping the material helps break it down and speeds up the decay. Keep it lightly moistened. If you are using a large composter that will not be turned, adding some coarse material, such as large weed stems (but not the seeds), or fine twigs will help preserve aeration.

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4. Lightly moisten the pile periodically

The microscopic creatures and earthworms that promote the decay require moisture, just like any other living thing. Let the compost “cook. A well-constructed compost heap will heat up – sometimes at high as to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This speeds decomposition and it helps kill pathogens and weed seeds.

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5. Stir up the pile to make sure everything decays

Even the black plastic containers benefit from a periodic reorganization of the contents. Spring is a good time to pull the finished compost out of one of these babies and to stir the remaining contents. Or – and this is my favorite – position the composter over a bed or area that hasn’t been doing well, and let it do its work. When you are pretty sure that the pile is working well, remove the composter and put it in a different spot. Leave the finished compost on the problem bed, and put all of the partially decayed material back in the composter for the next round.

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6. An earthworm farm is another solution for composting

The Worm Factory, for example, is stackable and can be easily fitted into a kitchen corner. Earthworms add valuable trace minerals to soil, and their voracious appetites can quickly convert eggshells, coffee grounds, and more into fertile soil. Create a mixture that is ½ potting soil and ½ kitchen waste, lightly moisten it, and let those little worm babies go to work. Do keep in mind that worms are living creatures that enjoy a temperature range of 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Too cold and they curl up and hide to wait for better weather; too warm and they will die. Also, these little guys are escape artists. Make sure that all materials are tucked inside their box and that the lid is on firmly. Leave them a dangling grass stem or corn shuck and earthworms will go exploring. One final note: do not add anything that has been sprayed with insecticide to your worm bin. They are as susceptible to these poisons as any other invertebrate.

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Composting is as easy as reading this article. I hope that you have enjoyed this tutorial, and that it will inspire you to learn more about composting and even to try it for yourself. If you have enjoyed it, please share it with others and feel free to add your comments. We would love to hear about your gardening adventures.

James G. Craig
 

James G. Craig is a gardening enthusiast who splits his spare time between growing vegetables, preening his flower gardens, and blogging about his experiences at the Gardener Corner.

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