Compost can grow a garden bigger in a completely chemical-free way that also reduces landfill waste. Technically, a compost pile is a mound of rotting material broken down by water, time, sunlight and microorganisms. Cornell Cooperative’s Community Horticulture Specialist Robin Simmen has a few dirty little composting secrets that will help turn kitchen and yard waste into a great soil amendment and fertilizer.
Pulse: What is the benefit of compost?
Robin Simmen: Home gardeners primarily use compost to replenish the organic content of their garden soil and build humus [the dark organic material in soils], the foundation of healthy soil and plant life. Some people also brew compost “tea” [made from steeping compost in water], a rapid way to accelerate the production of soil microbes that enhance and protect plant life; it can then be used as a foliar spray.
Pulse: How do you start a compost pile?
RS: If you have a lot of property and not a lot of animal visitors, you can just start a pile somewhere. If your space is limited and you want more protection for your pile, try a small compost bin like the Garden Gourmet [a black plastic bin].
Pulse: Does it require a lot of commitment?
RS: Composting takes time and volume. Smaller piles don’t generate as much heat, so they break down more slowly than larger piles. On the other hand, smaller piles are easier to turn over to aerate, which is essential to keep the piles from going anaerobic [absence of oxygen]. Be patient and turn your pile or bin at least once a week and every time you add materials.
Pulse: Composting is all about proportions. How do I achieve the right blend of organic material?
RS: Mix roughly equal parts by volume of “brown” and “green” materials; this blend will feed the bacteria and other decomposer organisms the right proportions of carbon and nitrogen. Browns are carbon-rich and include materials like leaves, spent plants and old potting soil, hay, pine needles, small twigs and wood chips. Greens are nitrogen-rich and include: Fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, spoiled juice and green plants (trimmings, clippings, weeds).
Pulse: How do you know if it’s working?
RS: A good compost pile or bin doesn’t smell like anything other than fresh earth. Bad smells mean something is out of balance in your compost pile. If it smells like ammonia, usually it has too much nitrogen and not enough carbon. Don’t add any of these things to your backyard compost pile: Meat, bones, dairy products, oils of any kind, coal or charcoal, papers printed with colored inks, diseased plants and weeds with seeds, unless your pile is very, very hot and you know that the high temperature will kill them.
Worms will find your pile—you don’t have to buy them. Don’t be tricked into buying special additives to speed up the breakdown. And don’t add lime—one of the beauties of compost is that it returns to neutral pH.
words: justine lorelle lomonaco | photos: jenny gorman