KC Gardens

Composting turns debris into garden gold: Here’s how to speed up nature

The composting process can be accelerated if the debris is kept moist.
The composting process can be accelerated if the debris is kept moist. The Kansas City Star

Composting is a great way to recycle organic debris from the lawn and garden. It’s the process in which these rich materials break down as microorganisms feed. The result is an earthy material that improves our clay soils and plant growth.

The process is natural, and composting happens all by itself, but there are a few tips that can speed up the process for quicker and better results.

The compost process is all about supporting a living mass of organisms that feed on debris. As with any living thing, the organisms need a few basics for survival: food and water.

Water is the lifeline. Organisms thrive when water is plentiful, but rest when the compost pile is dry. The key to quicker composting is a steady supply of water. The most action in a compost pile occurs when the material has the moisture content of a damp sponge.

Under our changing rain patterns, in order to achieve rapid composting and the greatest success, the pile should be watered during dry periods. There is no set rule of how often and how much water to apply because, like many things in nature, it all depends on the conditions. The best advice is to check the moisture content of the compost pile and when it feels dry, add water.

Hydrating a compost bin will require a little work. Water can sheet off a dry pile and not soak throughout the mass, so it’s best to turn the pile while adding water to help wet the debris from top to bottom.

Compost is usually made from old garden debris such as leaves, leafy growth or grass clippings. This organic material is what is transformed into the finished product for addition to the soil.

Just as the organisms in compost need water, they also must have a food source. This is where the greens and browns of composting come into play — the browns are what the microbes consume and the greens provide the energy or food to make them eat.

Oftentimes compost piles have lots of browns, such as leaves, but very few greens to supply the nitrogen that is contained in them. Even greens, once dry, lose their nutrients. As a result the decomposers stop feeding and the process comes to a stop. Adding garden fertilizer helps keep the supply of food available during the process.

Basic garden fertilizers that do not contain herbicides can be added to the pile periodically. Just as with watering, there’s no set rule or recipe. Simply add more — a generous handful or two — and mix throughout the mass when adding water. This should provide a jump-start to the hungry feeders, resulting in finished compost.

The beauty of composting is that it works no matter what happens during changing weather patterns, as it’s a natural process. The more you manage the pile through watering, fertilizing and turning, the quicker you reap the benefits.