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Hamptons Life

Sep 11, 2017 10:43 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Pure Garden Gold: How To Get Started Composting

There are a number of commercial compost bins available. The bin on the left is filled from the top and has side vents for air circulation (cat not included). The center bin is a tumbler type that can be manually turned to keep the contents mixed and cooking. The faux terra cotta bin on the right is also filled from the top, has vent holes to add air and a sliding door (black portion) to remove compost. Top pick would be the center tumbler type. ANDREW MESSINGER
Sep 11, 2017 11:03 AM

A woman in a gardening class once asked me an interesting question. She had recently purchased a home in Southampton and was learning the ins and outs of home horticulture and wanted to know what I thought was the single most important thing she could do for her gardens. I couldn’t give her a quick answer, because my mind kept coming up with long lists instead of one single thing she could do. Then, several days later, I had a brain drizzle, and I had my answer: compost.

Making your own compost at home is probably the single most important thing you can do to help your garden—as well as contributing to saving our planet.

I then thought back to nearly 40 years ago, when I was visiting a large greenhouse grower in Patchogue who was very proud of what first appeared to be a field of dirt piled neatly in rows. There were hundreds of cubic feet of these rows, and the grower beamed as he touched the soil and repeated several times, “Pure gold … ya know, it’s just pure gold.”

He’d had an idea back in the 1970s and approached several local municipalities with a proposition. Since the practice of burning fallen leaves had been outlawed, he offered to take the leaves off the town’s hands, saving them plenty of labor costs and space at the dump. (Can you believe we used to just bury our leaves and lawn clippings at local dumps?)

With careful tending, he was astounded to watch these leaves decompose and almost miraculously turn into the richest humus he’d seen, complete with an abundance of long, fat hungry worms. He now had more than enough humus to add to his garden and planting beds, turning what was once useless sandy soil into incredibly deep homemade topsoil.

These days, however, we not only can’t and don’t burn our leaves, but we can no longer put our grass clippings in plastic bags and send them to the dump. But, again, we’ve inadvertently struck gold, as fresh grass clippings are another key ingredient to the composting process. In fact, in the right proportions there’s nothing that will give you good, rich humus quite as fast as fresh grass clippings mixed with fallen maple leaves and some small twigs. Throw in your kitchen scraps (no meat and bones, please), along with spent annuals, canna foliage, corn stalks, and all types of garden refuse, and you’ve got some great stuff to cook. That’s right—cook.

What our enterprising grower did was a simple process known by all good organic gardeners as composting. It’s simple, takes only a little more than an ounce of effort (if you start right) and yields results that will give you a gardening soil unlike any that you can buy in a bag, and a better buy than anything you would pay for.

And this seemingly magical soil that you can create will add some of the most important building blocks to sandy soil than you can possibly imagine. Want to see sandy East End soil turn into plant-friendly, nutrient-rich black gold? Compost!

You can start now—it’s a perfect time of the year, with grass clippings being overabundant and the leaves about to fall.

Compost is nature’s way of recycling energy and nutrients. It’s often referred to as the “Organic Cycle.” Living green plants convert solar energy into chemical energy through the process of photosynthesis. Chemical energy is tied up in the tissues of plants and passed on to man, animals and other living creatures.

When life forms die, their tissues are given back to the soil. Soil organisms literally chew up and decompose these organic residues, reducing them back to their elemental forms, so that essential nutrients can be made available to plants. Microorganisms serve as nature’s digestive system and give life to the soil.

This basic cycle of life plays a vital role in both soil formulation and plant nutrition. Humus, the end product from composting, is an essential soil ingredient. Organic materials that accumulate around a home—leaves, grass clippings, garden and yard residues such as small twigs, and the season-end gleanings from flower and vegetable gardens, as well as many kitchen wastes—all contain valuable energy that can be recycled into rich humus in just weeks or months, depending on the materials composted and the method used. A well-cooked compost pile should take six to nine months.

With proper planning, you can set up several piles or bins so that one is always ready to be used, and there are plenty of options for even small properties. It just doesn’t make sense for you to bag up all of those beautiful maple leaves, corn stalks and lush lawn clippings, and trash them, and then, in the spring, go out and buy bags of topsoil, manure and peat moss and, yes, compost, when you can recycle what you’ve got right now and end up with something just as good, and probably better, right in your backyard. And, no, a compost pile properly tended doesn’t smell and won’t attract rodents.

There are six primary considerations or operations in good scientific home composting: collection of organic materials, construction of the pile(s), maintaining the pile, proper amounts of moisture, adequate air supply, and an adequate supply of soil-microorganisms … something that Mother Nature used to supply in her own sweet time, but now you can buy them at the local garden center.

Start collecting organic materials. Leaves (but not pine needles), grass clippings, garden wastes, manures (not treated with chemicals), and many kitchen wastes (excluding meats) are all excellent materials for recycling in a compost pile.

Collection of the leaves and yard wastes can be made easier by using a burlap or plastic tarp that can easily be pulled about the lawn without doing any damage. A wheelbarrow is also fine but won’t hold as much.

It’s surprising how much composting material accumulates in the kitchen. Some gardeners like to keep two pails for garbage: one will go to the compost pile, while the other will follow the more traditional route. Materials such as coffee grounds, eggshells, vegetable scraps, orange peels, apple cores, melon rinds, etc., and houseplant sheddings can go into the compost pail—but never include meat scraps, as they will attract the wrong element.

Other materials that can be added are hay, straw, shredded branches, twigs, sod trimmings, etc. But—and this is an important “but”—plan on keeping your pile as far from the house as possible, preferably in a hidden or out-of-the-way area. A well-kept compost pile should never, ever smell, or attract rodents, and while it might send up wisps of steam in the dead of winter, it is rarely an aesthetic work of art.

It’s usually desirable to enclose your compost pile in order to keep the materials well contained and to conserve the generated heat. Some of the possibilities to consider are:

1. Wire bins, made of chicken wire. This type of structure will only last a couple of years, unless you upgrade the wire with a stronger material.

2. A three-sided enclosure made of concrete blocks, wire screen or pressure-treated wood, or a rot-resistant wood such as locust or white cedar.

3. Prefabricated bins, which are usually made out of plastic and may be round, angled or square with removable sides. This type of bin is acceptable only if you are doing small amounts of composting and don’t think you’ll have more than a 55-gallon drum’s worth of stuffing for each cycle.

Organic materials should be added to the pile in 8-to-10-inch layers. It’s preferable to mix coarse materials, such as leaves, garden and kitchen wastes, with the finer materials, like grass clippings, manure or shredded materials. Finer matter alone tends to compact when not mixed, thus making it difficult for air to penetrate the pile. The result is a slow cook with reduced microorganism activity that could simply die and leave you with a useless pile

Remember: Mix green materials with brown (carbon with nitrogen) to get off to a good start. Each of these 8-to-10-inch layers can be “activated” with either a commercial compost activator or a handful of dry high-nitrogen organic fertilizer, but there an ongoing debate if this activation is really necessary. The additives may stimulate the “cooking” process in which the organic materials are broken down.

Moisture should be added to each layer. It’s helpful to stir materials around while sprinkling (not drowning) them. All surfaces should be moist but not dripping wet. In another week or 10 days, add water again if there’s been no rain. You’ll be amazed, as the pile seems to absorb nearly 10 times more water than the previous week.

Well, that’s enough to get started. Next week, we’ll go over maintaining the pile, and maintaining the proper amounts of moisture, air and microorganisms.

In the meantime keep piling—and keep growing!

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I would argue 5that a lab soil test isn important and oft-neglected step. Soil pH is important, and without a soil test there is no way to know what plant nutrients the soil has and what it lacks. Bith meat and fish should be excluded, and pet waste is a definite no-no. With the right mix of nitrogenous and carbon materials, compost "starters" are unnecessary. The pile should be at least four feet in all directions, and as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Too wet and it will go anaerobic, and stink. ...more
By Gansetter (3), Amagansett on Sep 11, 17 5:29 PM