First, allow me to wish all my readers a most wonderful Thanksgiving. I do give thanks for all of you who have been following my column for more than 16 years. It will be a strange Thanksgiving this year for sure, but everything has been strange this year. The saddest part will be not being able to celebrate everything we are thankful for with family and friends. So reach out to them in different ways: Zoom or Skype, call them on the phone, send an e-card, or – wonder of wonders – send them a real, honest-to-goodness “thank you” card!
Now, I promised a column on composting, so here we go.
You may ask “Why should I compost? What’s in it for me?” That’s easy. Composting can save you money. Your garbage bills can be reduced and you won’t be purchasing bags of fertilizer or soil amendments. But there is so much more. It will save water by helping the soil hold moisture and generally improves the condition of your soil. Its good whether your soil is clay, sandy or in-between. Composting has been called “nature’s way of recycling.” Think of all the leaves that fall on the forest floor and decay, putting nutrients back in the soil. That’s what we are doing when we compost but we have so much more material to work with than just leaves.
There are a couple of composting systems. You can buy heavy-duty plastic compost bins that are rodent-resistant. These have lids, floors and are without any ways for rodents to enter. (There should be some sort of way for air to enter to help the breakdown, but these shouldn’t be larger than ¼”.) These bins work best with fruit and vegetable plus yard trimmings. But they can also be used just for yard debris.
If all you have are yard trimmings, you can go with an open-bin system. It can be a series of bins or just a large pile. This type of composting does need to be turned and kept moist for the best breakdown.
My favorite system for composting is a worm bin. I have a three-tiered one that I periodically rotate. The worm castings are great compost, nicely broken down. Plus there is the added benefit of the “worm tea” that I draw from the bottom of the tiers and dilute to feed my orchids and garden plants at a ratio of 1 part “tea” to 50 parts water. So you don’t need much!
The most important mixture is to combine brown matter, green matter, air and water. Browns are the dried, woody materials like pruned and chopped branches, pine needles and fallen leaves. Most sawdust is good, too. Greens are moist, green materials like grass clippings (if you didn’t use weed killer on your lawn), fruit and veggie cuttings, tea bags, citrus rinds, and even coffee grounds.
By taking a pitch fork and turning the pile once a week or so, you will be aerating the pile. You can also set up three bins side-by-side and move a pile down the line, turning it as you go. Water is essential but not too much. In the end, the compost should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. A good watering once a week will do in the summer. No need to bother in the winter and you might even want to place a tarp over it so it doesn’t get too soggy.
“Hot vs Cold? What does that mean?” Well, basically, hot composting will break the pile down faster. But the pile needs to be no more than about a cubic yard (3’ x 3’ x 3’) in size. Heat will kill weed seeds and some plant diseases, but heat is not necessary to break down the pile. To get the pile “hot” you will need to turn it often and make sure it is watered and aerated. If you see steam rising from the pile, you will know it is composting properly. A hot compost pile takes about 3 to 8 months to break down.
It can be “Cold composted,” which only means it takes longer. Either way is good. I usually wind up cold composting just because of time. Turning the pile often and keeping it watered properly will reduce the incidence of critters trying to nest in it. My compost pile is in a far corner of the garden, out of sight, so I am not as concerned about rodents. And I have a cat. That helps, too. A cold compost pile will take 12 to 18 months to break down.
There are some things that should never go into a compost pile, be it hot or cold. Meat of any kind, bones, salted items, dairy products, grease or oils, sawdust from treated lumber or plywood, human, dog, cat, pig or bird feces, anything with pesticides on it, and diseased plants (in cold piles).
After the pile has broken down, let it sit for another 4 to 8 weeks to allow it to “cure.” Using uncured compost may harm plants and especially seeds. You will know when it is ready to use when you turn the pile and it no longer heats and looks dark and crumbly.
For more information, visit the Oregon State Extension Service online at: https://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/techniques/compost-backyard.