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August 2001 Issue
Making Your Garden Grow
by Ronda L. Halpin
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With August upon us and gardens everywhere producing a bountiful harvest, many of us might be thinking a lot about all of the great food that's coming to our tables. However, if the story ends there, you're missing a great opportunity to extend your garden's usefulness. Because, for every carrot that's been peeled and every watermelon rind that's been nibbled clean, there's a chance to let that garden help itself grow. The purpose of this article is to help you discover more about the process of composting and how it can help your garden grow.

Composting refers to the process that naturally occurs when organic matter is broken down by microbes in the soil to produce a rich, organic mixture that many gardeners refer to as "black gold". There's good reason for this name, too. The finished compost is nuitrient-rich and a perfect addition to everything from standard gardens to shrubs and bushes to potted houseplants. Plants love this stuff like many people love chocolate!

Composting at home can be as simple as maintaining a pile of leaves, grass trimmings and kitchen waste in the corner of your yard or as complex as organizing a series of holding bins for composting in stages. However, there are a few things that all good composting systems require and, the more you work to insure that your pile has adequate amounts of them, the faster your system will provide you with finished compost. They are:

  • AIR
    Composting microbes are aerobic -- they can't do their work well unless they are provided with air. Without air, anaerobic (non-air needing) microbes take over the pile. They do cause slow decomposition, but tend to smell like putrefying garbage! For this reason, it's important to make sure that there are plenty of air passageways into your compost pile. Some compost ingredients, such as green grass clippings or wet leaves, mat down very easily into slimy layers that air cannot get through. Other ingredients, such as straw, don't mat down easily and are very helpful in allowing air into the center of a pile. To make sure that you have adequate aeration for your pile and its microbes, thoroughly break up or mix in any ingredients that might mat down and exclude air. You can also turn the pile to get air into it, which means completely breaking it apart with a spade or garden fork and then piling it back together in a more 'fluffed-up' condition.

  • WATER
    Ideally, your pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge to fit the needs of compost microbes. At this moisture level, there is a thin film of water coating every particle in the pile, making it very easy for microbes to live and disperse themselves throughout the pile. If your pile is drier than this, it won't be very good microbial habitat, and composting will be slowed significantly. If your pile is a great deal wetter, the sodden ingredients will be so heavy that they will tend to mat down and exclude air from the pile, again slowing the composting process (and perhaps creating anaerobic odor problems). If you are using dry ingredients, such as autumn leaves or straw, you'll need to moisten them as you add them to the pile. Kitchen fruit and vegetable wastes generally have plenty of moisture, as do fresh green grass clippings and garden thinnings. Watch out for far-too-soggy piles in wet climates (a tarp may help to keep rain off during wet weather). In dry climates, it may be necessary to water your pile occasionally to maintain proper moisture.

  • FOOD
    In broad terms, there are two major kinds of food that composting microbes need. 'Browns' are dry and dead plant materials such as straw, dry brown weeds, autumn leaves, and wood chips or sawdust. These materials are mostly made of chemicals that are just long chains of sugar molecules linked together. As such, these items are a source of energy for the compost microbes. Because they tend to be dry, browns often need to be moistened before they are put into a compost system.

    'Greens' are fresh (and often green) plant materials such as green weeds from the garden, kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, coffee grounds and tea bags, fresh horse manure, etc. Compared to browns, greens have more nitrogen in them. Nitrogen is a critical element in amino acids and proteins, and can be thought of as a protein source for the billions of multiplying microbes.

    A good mix of browns and greens is the best nutritional balance for the microbes. This mix also helps out with the aeration and amount of water in the pile. Browns, for instance, tend to be bulky and promote good aeration. Greens, on the other hand, are typically high in moisture, and balance out the dry nature of the browns.

Once you have a good mix of all of the above, your compost pile will generally take care of itself. However, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. If you live in a cold climate, your compost pile will probably go dormant in the winter. Don't worry -- it will start back up again when the springtime thaw comes. A common misunderstanding about compost piles is that they must be hot to be successful. This just isn't true. If you have good aeration, moisture and the proper ingredient mix, your pile will decompose just fine at temperatures of 50 degrees Farenheit and above.

Of course, hotter piles will decompose a bit faster. The heat in a hot pile is the result of the collective body heat of billions of microbes that are busy digesting the ingredients in the pile. Generally speaking, a hotter pile means more microbes or conditions that allow the microbes to have faster metabolisms, and therefore a faster composting process. Piles smaller than one cubic meter generally cannot insulate themselves well enough to remain hot for long, if at all, so it is best to maintain a pile at least that size. You can also provide additional insulation to a pile by stacking bales of hay or straw, or bags of dry autumn leaves, around your compost bin system. Some people even used stacked hay bales to make bin systems (this kind of bin will slowly compost itself, of course).

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