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Composting

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Composting for Everyone
Contributed by Marion Owen of PlanTea, Inc. 

Making compost is as easy as baking a cake: Collect the ingredients, stir them together, and bake. What's more, you can make compost anywhere, whether you live in the city, in an apartment or in Alaska, like me.

Why compost? Compost makes great gardens and solves almost all garden problems. Compost:
* Improves all soil types
* Gives another life to organic materials, from leftovers to dried leaves
* Provides basic soil building blocks (N, P, K) as well as dozens of micro- and macronutrients
* Replaces nutrients that garden crops remove in their normal growth processes
* Prevents nutrients from leaching away
* Buffers soil against erosion, drought, pollution and other extreme conditions
* Extends the life of landfills by utilizing home and yard waste

To make compost, simply follow recipe below, step by step, and you will have ready-to-use compost in 3 to 4 weeks.

Step 1: Gather ingredients

Go on a treasure hunt. Talk to your neighbors and friends, scan the classifieds and check your own yard for compost ingredients. You're looking for materials that, when combined, will provide the right environment to support the hard-working microorganisms that break down the materials.

This army of tiny organisms needs food, water and oxygen to do their job. For food, they require nitrogen (N), and carbohydrates (C). Nitrogen materials include "stable scraps" such as horse, rabbit, goat, and chicken manure, green grass clippings (minus any chemicals), fishmeal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, produce trimmings, and garden waste, such as weeds and trimmings. 

For carbohydrates, look for straw, dried leaves, sawdust and wood chips (in small amounts), shredded newspaper, cardboard, seaweed, kelp meal, and brown paper bags.

Now mix these ingredients in a ratio of 1 part nitrogen stuff to 3 parts carbs. For example, 1-part grass clippings to 3 parts leaves. Which, by the way, is one of the simplest and easiest compost combinations to come by, especially in the fall.

Some ingredients don't belong in a compost pile. These include: Meat scraps, oily products such as salad dressings, peanut butter and mayonnaise, pet litter, large sticks and branches, slick magazine pages, and waxed cardboard.

Step #2: Stir the ingredients

Once you've collected the materials, it's time to build the pile. This is done all at once, not over weeks or months, and it's the key to fast-working compost, as you'll see. In a hot compost pile, temperatures of 140 to 160 degrees (F) are reached, which kills most weed seeds and shortens the compost process to several weeks versus months or years.
Here are some basic guidelines:

* The initial pile should measure at least 3x3x3 feet (3x3x5 feet in cooler climates)
* Contain your pile inside a tumbler or bin(s). These are available through mail order companies, garden centers, master composter programs and the solid waste division of local governments. You can also make your own bin or set of bins from heavy wire screen and wood
* Chop or shred coarse materials
* Build the pile in layers, like a cake, alternating nitrogen and carbon materials
* Moisten layers with water so ingredients feel like a damp sponge

Step #3: Let the compost cook

After mixing ingredients, things will start to heat up. Keep this process going by turning and aerating the pile every 4 to 7 days. With a tumbler, simply give it a spin. For bins, fold ingredients with a pitchfork, moving the inside materials to the outside, and visa versa.

The compost pile is finished when it has reduced to half its original size, ingredients no longer heat up and the materials are dark and smaller in size. Don't be fooled by advertisements that show finished compost as fine as cornmeal. Unless you ran these ingredients through a food processor, your finished compost will be chunky, but ready to use in the garden

Vermiculture: How to compost in small spaces

Everyone has food scraps, but not everyone has a place to compost them. Vermiculture uses worms as the primary composters and, just like compost microorganisms; they need food, water and air to do their job.

The set-up is fairly simple: Fill a bin, such as a "Can-o-Worms" composting system, with the same materials and additional water you'd use in a compost pile. Add red worms (Eisenia fetida) and close the bin. 
Quietly, and in the dark, the worms will go to work, breaking down the materials. Periodically add more food scraps. Every three months the worms should be harvested (separated from the castings).
Worms and vermiculture supplies are readily available on the web, through mail order suppliers and at many garden centers.
  
How to use compost (You can never have too much compost!)

* Spread compost on the garden 2 weeks in early spring
* After spring planting, apply a 1 to 2-inch thick mulch around garden crops, trees, shrubs and perennials to regulate soil moisture and discourage weed growth
* Side-dress your plants with compost during the growing season for a slow-release nutritional boost
* Add compost to container gardens
* Make compost tea. Add 2 handfuls of compost to a 5-gallon bucket of water and let it steep for a few days. Stir daily. Dilute the liquid until it resembles black tea and use it to feed your lawn, trees and garden
* Spread a 4-inch layer of compost around perennials and shrubs in the fall

Composting and vermiculture are practiced worldwide as low-tech solutions to a global solid waste problem. The good news is that everyone can compost. It's as easy as pie, or cake!

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Marion Owen lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska where she tends over 20 raised beds of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. A master gardener and well-published writer and photographer, Marion conducts many workshops annually. She also developed PlanTea, the chemical-free organic plant food in convenient tea bags, and co-authored Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul.