Composting is an effective way to reduce lawn and garden waste by turning it into a valuable resource. Compost made from plant debris, leaves and grass clippings improves our clay soils. There is a sense of satisfaction when a batch of compost is finished and ready for the garden.
Unfortunately, the satisfaction can turn into frustration when this natural process of decay doesn’t seem to happen. The process of composting is actually a science, and the art is figuring out the formula that will speed it up.
Working with home composters, and even in my own backyard, I realized the art and science of backyard composting hinges on a few basic concepts. If these details are not followed, the process can grind to a standstill.
Composting is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms. The key to composting is to remember that while the materials in the bin are dead, the organisms needed to break down the debris are alive. t The organisms that feed on the waste of leaves and debris need the same basics for survival that we do: oxygen, a food source and water.
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Getting oxygen into the pile is usually not a problem. The debris is layered, and throughout the pile are small openings between the pieces that provide the necessary oxygen. The driving force for composting is providing food and a water supply for the organisms to feed on.
Food for the organisms is the nitrogen found in the green materials added to the pile. In the fall we rarely have a lot of fresh, green material to add; the pile is mostly dry and brown. The easiest way to get the nitrogen food source into the pile is to simply add it. Lawn and garden fertilizers that do not contain pesticides provide the food that allows the microorganisms to go to work.
While composting is a science, it is not an exact science. Determining how much to add depends on the size of the pile. Bottom line, mix in a couple of handfuls when building the pile or when the process slows. It would be difficult to add too much.
The second trick is to give the organisms a good drink of water. The ideal moisture content of a compost pile is that of a wet sponge. When the pile is dry the organisms are not active. Water is best added at the start when building the pile so that it is wet throughout. Keep the pile moist for quicker composting.
Remember, the more you manage the pile by keeping the organisms alive, the quicker it becomes compost.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.