How to use composting to improve your garden
Mountain settlers had to make due with what they had. They couldn’t ride into town every time they needed something for their homes or land. For one thing, they were subsistence farmers with very little money. For another, they lived off the land gratefully; it was the lifestyle of choice. People who gravitate to the mountains to farm the land generally enjoy solitude.
As we wrote earlier, Appalachian farmers and gardeners planted sow true seeds, replanting year after year from the same plant stock. They also nurtured the ground that literally fed them by rotating their crops and by composting. Composting served two purposes:
- It helped create nutrient-rich soil.
- It drastically reduced kitchen waste.
Composting, therefore, is a natural process that can increase the quality and quantity of your garden. The Appalachian settlers knew it, and now you know it, too. Let’s examine how it works.
The Elements of Composting
Anyone can compost, whether you have a tiny garden or a large farm. It takes minimal work, since the real work of composting — breaking down plant matter into a soil additive — is done for you by bacteria. You need but three things to start composting:
- A simple, well ventilated container
- The proper mix of ingredients
- Instructions for a few simple-to-master tasks
The Compost Bin
If you’re brand new to composting, the number one rule of thumb, the one thing to remember above everything else, is that composting happens outside. Do not attempt a compost pile in your bedroom or kitchen. Put it near (but not in) your garden.
Your compost container can be as simple as a fenced-in cage or as complex as a miniature cement mixer. It just needs to keep the composting contents together while providing enough air to let the process work. It also helps tremendously if your compost pile gets a lot of sunlight. Sunlight helps keep the pile warm, which aids the bacteria.
Compost piles are a mix, not a mess. Start with green matter, such as grass clippings and kitchen waste —banana peels, broccoli stems and melon rinds, for example. Add brown matter, such as twigs, wood trimmings, dried leaves and shredded newspaper. The final ingredient is a little bit of water. Too little and the process won’t start. Too much and the mix becomes sewerage.
The right conditions for composting are damp, warm and sunny. You can add an activator, which kick-starts the bacteria already in your composting pile, but it’s not necessary. How long it takes to turn your garbage into a soil additive depends on a number of factors, including the size of your pile, the mix of ingredients and how often you aerate the pile.
To get composting to work efficiently, you must do two simple chores: adding and turning. The first task is easy. Keep feeding your pile. Composting actually works best when it has a variety of organic matter to chew on (figuratively speaking, since composting piles have no teeth). Just remember that every time you add something, add from all three food groups: green matter, brown matter and water.
Turning involves a bit more labor. While some modern composting bins are made to turn, mixing the ingredients easily, traditional bins require you to take a pitchfork or shovel and turn the pile the old-fashioned way -- manually. The good news is that you only need to turn a pile every week or two.
Compost Equals Soil
After several months, if you’ve done everything correctly — longer if you haven’t — your compost pile should resemble rich, dark soil. Mix it into the ground beneath your plants to grow healthy, vibrant vegetables, fruits and flowers. Composting is the natural ways to turn your waste into plant food that in turn feeds you. It’s the ultimate recycling!
Photo credits: bargainbabe.com, curbly.com, grow-it-organically.com, homes-kid.com, ian.umces.edu, sandiegocounty.gov