Composting is a good way to increase garden productivity: Part I

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Composting is a good way to increase garden productivity: Part I

Improving soil structure is one factor that increases garden productivity. This can be accomplished in several ways. One of the best methods is to rototill compost directly into the soil. In fact, compost - a mixture of partially decomposed plant material and other wastes - solves many soil problems.

Not only does composting improve soil structure, it also releases plant nutrients and plays a role in recycling. In most instances, improving garden soil is necessary for successful plant growth through maturity. The ideal garden soil is loose, with a high water-holding capacity and adequate drainage. Composting creates these soil conditions.

Decomposing compost releases plant nutrients slowly. However, usually this material will not provide the nitrogen crops require. Organic gardeners solve this problem by adding a combination of compost and manure to produce good yields. In this case, additional fertilizers are unnecessary.

Recycling comes into play because gardeners make compost from garden wastes, reducing burdens of trash disposal.

Most organic materials decompose, but some aren't suited for a compost pile. Usable organic waste consists of leaves, grass clippings, straw and nonwoody plant trimmings. Any tree branches bigger than 1/4 inch in diameter must be chopped or shredded. Vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and eggshells are also suitable for compost. On the other hand, organic materials that pose health problems and those that draw rodents (meat, eggs, dairy products and grease) should not be put in a compost pile.

Another problem with compost piles is the presence of weed seeds and disease organisms. Compost piles generate heat often reaching 150°F. If these harmful organisms are located at the edge of the pile, they may cause problems.

The balance of carbon and nitrogen is responsible for the decomposition of organic waste. Carbon is used by microorganisms for energy, while nitrogen provides protein synthesis. The proportion of these two elements used by bacteria averages about 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. This creates the perfect balance for bacteria to do its work.

Because an imbalance frequently occurs, gardeners add tree leaves and grass clippings to speed up composting. A mixture of one-half brown tree leaves (40:1 ratio) can be used with one-half grass clippings (20:1 ratio) to create a working pile (30:1 ratio). The different sizes and textures of content create a well-drained, well-aerated pile.

Think in terms of half high-carbon and half low-carbon materials when creating a compost pile. A pile too high in carbon will take longer to break down, and one too high in nitrogen will smell like ammonia gas. These conditions result in decomposition, but the process will take longer.

Locating a compost pile inside some kind of structure saves space, hastens decomposition and keeps yards and gardens looking neat. A structure can be constructed from a variety of materials, using any kind of design.

Holding units, especially suited to yard leaves, are simple containers that store materials until they break down. These units are especially suited to nonwoody materials such as grass clippings, crop wastes, garden weeds and leaves. Decomposition may take as long as six months to two years. Chopped or shredded and wet and dry materials, maintained with proper moisture levels, will hasten the composting process.

Of course, adding additional materials from time to time will vary the stages of decomposition. The best compost forms at the bottom of the pile, with the partially decomposed material near the top. Once the compost at the bottom has completed the process, it can be used.

Turning units, used to build and turn active compost piles, allow wastes to be mixed for aeration on a regular basis. This provides bacteria with oxygen for breaking down materials. However, turning systems require waste preparation and frequent maintenance.

Efficiently using these units means composting in batches. Stockpile materials until bins are full. Monitor bins, turning materials when temperatures peak (90°F. to 140°F.) and begin to fall, about four to seven days after construction. Turn again when temperatures peak again. Compost in these bins will be ready in four to six weeks.

Compost piles should be located in partial sunlight, but should not be located where neighbors or passersby might be offended.

Don't miss Part II next month.