I imagine all you gardeners are picking veggies and flowers from your garden now.
Wonderful isn't it? I visit my early peas daily, and hope to be eating peas in about 10 days!
When you start bringing fresh produce into your kitchen there's always lots of green waste. And you probably have lots of grass clippings and shrub prunings too.
The best thing to do with all these materials it, is to compost them.
Composting is a natural biological process, that is happening in nature all the time. It's nature's way of recycling and returning nutrients back to the soil. Backyard composting is just mimicking this process. Finished compost is a great soil conditioner. It also adds nutrients to your soil, introduces beneficial organisms, and helps conserve moisture. Environmentally, it reduces reliance on chemical fertilizers. It is a win-win situation, and it's free and easy to do!
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia
First of all you need a compost bin. In urban areas, enclosed bins are probably best, because they keep out rodents and are easy to manage. They are available from most municipalities, and from Arts Nursery. These bins are typically enclosed on the top and sides with a little opening at the bottom to shovel out finished compost. They take a long time to compost though, because little air can get in.
It is pretty easy to make your own compost bin. A heavy duty garbage can with 1.5 cm aeration holes drilled every 15cm around the can from top to bottom, and a tight fitting lid works just fine. If the lid is very tight fitting, lay the can on its side to roll it to aerate and mix your compost. A 2' X 2' board bolted inside from top to bottom helps flip the compost even more.
A homemade bin like this should give you finished compost in 5 – 6 months. I live on a farm so I use a 4 bin system – 3 bins for compost, and 1 for leaves. My bins are 4' X 4' x 4', and made from hardware cloth and stout corner posts. Hardware cloth is pretty good at keeping out rodents. I cover them during the wet fall and winter so the compost doesn't get too soggy. Bins 1, 2, and 3 are for general compost, and bin 4 is for leaves. And I still could use more compost!
Site your compost bin away from your house or outbuildings, in a sunny spot convenient to your garden and house. Sun helps speed up the composting process.
Start your compost with a 2” layer of chopped twigs or straw, to provide good drainage right away. Then basically, you just add organic materials in layers. Veg and fruit scraps, leaves, grass clippings, prunings, dryer lint, shredded newspaper, rotted manure and rinsed eggshells are all good to add.
Do not add meat or bones, dairy products, bread, weed seeds or weed roots, pet feces, or diseased plants. The greater variety of organic materials, the better. Shredded and chopped materials compost faster, and you can shred materials with your lawn mower (great for dry leaves), food processor, leaf shredder or pruners. Try and layer green material like food scraps and green leaves, with brown materials like fallen leaves, straw and twigs. Green material adds nitrogen and brown material adds carbon. The ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio is 3:1, but 2:1 is pretty good. So that is twice as much brown materials to green, by volume. If your pile is stinky, you have too much nitrogen in it.
Chopped comfrey leaves or chopped stinging nettle leaves only, are great for jumpstarting or activating your compost. They both contain lots of nitrogen as well as micronutrients like iron, magnesium, sulphur and calcium.
Your compost needs to be lightly moist, like a wrung out sponge. You may need to water it to get it started. If it gets too dry, decomposition will stop. And too much water slows it down too. Kitchen scraps are often high in moisture.
Your compost needs air to work, so you can turn it with a shovel or roll it in your barrel. These methods aerate and mix your compost so it works faster.
Compost takes 6 - 12 months to finish depending on conditions. Finished compost is dark and crumbly with no signs of the original materials. It has a fresh earthy smell – I love it! The finished compost pile is usually only 1/2 the size of your starting pile. Before using, I screen my compost to sieve out any materials not fully decomposed. I still seem to get too many twigs, and I just throw them back into the working pile. My screen is made from hardware cloth stretched across a 2' X 4' wooden frame.
Good compost is invaluable. You can top-dress your garden beds spring and fall, use it as a mulch in the summer, or top-dress your lawn or outdoor pots. It makes a good houseplant soil, mixed 1/2 and 1/2 with perlite. Compost tea is a soluble, nitrogen rich fertilizer.
If you are lucky enough to have some big deciduous trees in your yard, and have too many leaves for your regular compost, making leaf mulch is a must. Use chicken wire clipped together in an appropriate sized circle (4' diameter?), and pile your leaves in it, as you rake them up. For every 3 – 4” layer of leaves, add a 1” layer of soil. Large leaves, like big leaf maples or some oaks, benefit from being chopped up first. You can mulch your leaves in piles in your garden beds too. After piling your leaves, moisten them well, and cover so the leaves don't blow away. Leaf mulch usually takes about 6 months. It will be dark and crumbly and smell good like finished compost. If you don't add any soil or chop your leaves, it may take up to 2 years. Leaf mulch doesn't have much nutrient value, bit it is a great soil conditioner. So any gardener with heavy clay or very sandy soil will love it!
I bet when you started reading this article, composting seemed like a wonderful idea. But after reading about shovelling, chopping, turning, screening, more shovelling, more chopping, more turning, more screening, etc, etc, you might be a little discouraged. Don't be.
Your neighbours will hang over your fence and lust after your yummy veggies and huge, beautiful flowers. And just think of all the new friends you'll make as you scrounge in your neighbourhood for compost materials. Remember all the benefits of good compost too – healthy soil which makes healthy plants, healthy environment and healthy you!
P.S. If you live in Surrey, BC, you can visit city hall for a special deal on a composter.