Turn organic debris such as leaves, clippings into nutrient-rich compost

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Kathleen Vinyard demonstrates a compost tumbler that can be filled with leaves or other organic matter. A compost pile is simpler and cheaper but requires more effort to speed decomposition. (Fred Lynch)

Have you noticed how everyone and every business is "going green" these days? I saw an ad in the newspaper about a bank that is now going green. I always thought a bank was a green business. Isn't money in the United States green? I guess that is not exactly what they meant.

This green theme seems to be mushrooming. I know mushrooms are not green, so pardon the pun. Company after company is touting that it is the first to go green in its neighborhood, county, state or the country. I laugh when I see these ads. Let's face it: Agriculture and horticulture were the first green enterprises in the history of man.

Unfortunately, agriculture and horticulture have strayed from that foundation of "cultivating green." I haven't seen a lawnmower in years that isn't powered by gasoline. Most of our pesticides are derived from petrochemicals. Most of our fertilizers are man-made.

Not only are our products and equipment not "green" but even our cultivation practices are far from being "green." We want to keep our flower beds clean and pretty. When we see a declining flower or a weed, we dead head it or pull it and throw it in the trash can. Now if we were really green, we would take those dead heads, those weeds and any other organic debris and compost it. But no, that takes too much effort. We just carry it out to the curb and wait for a truck to come by and take it away.

If we had composted that organic debris we could have used it for a mulch to make our flower beds attractive. We would have also improved the soil in our flower bed. But again no, we go to the local garden center and buy mulch or rock, haul it home and spread it. Then we pat ourselves on the back because we hurt it while making our flower beds pretty.

I would like to suggest that each of you start going green in your own landscape by composting. This doesn't have to be an ugly pile of grass clippings, rotten tomatoes, table scraps, etc. It can include all of these things, but it can be in an enclosed container that hides all of the ugliness of a compost pile while speeding up the composting process.

When you use your compost effectively, you can enhance the soil structure in your gardens. Organic matter from compost will break up clays in soils, while also helping to hold water in sandy soils. The compost will release nutrients to flowers, shrubs and lawn.

So how do you get started? First, purchase or make a compost bin or tumbler. A bin is less expensive to purchase, but you will have to work a little harder to turn the compost as it is "cooking." The tumbler simply has to be rotated every few days.

Fill a 55 gallon compost tumbler with leaves or other organic matter. Leave a little room for the incorporation of other ingredients. Add a coffee can full of loose native soil. Microorganisms from the native soil will start the composting process.

Mix about 2 cups of a high nitrogen fertilizer such as a 28-0-4 in with the leaves. Microorganisms need the nitrogen for their food source as they process the compost.

Add 2 cups of agricultural lime into the compost mixture. The lime will keep the pH of the compost mixture at the correct level so the microorganisms will be able to work effectively.

Finally, add some Compost Maker, an additional source of microorganisms for the composting process. The compost maker is mixed with water and then poured into the tumbler. Moisture is required for the composting process.

It is extremely important that the compost be mixed every few days. To know how often to mix the compost, place a compost thermometer into the mixture. When the temperature starts to rise above 125 degrees Fahrenheit, turn the mixture. If you don't turn the compost mixture, the temperature will continue to rise, and the aerobic decomposition will change to anaerobic decomposition. The process slows down considerably.

If you decide to make a compost pile instead of using a tumbler, follow the directions as listed above, but add everything in layers. The resulting pile will have layers of organic matter, soil, fertilizer, lime, and Compost Maker. Repeat these layers until the pile is as high as you want it.

Remember, when making a compost pile, you still have to turn the pile every few days in order to keep the aerobic decomposition working at maximum speed. Use the compost thermometer to determine how often you need to turn the pile.

Making compost from organic debris generated in your kitchen and landscape will really turn your cultivation practices into "green practices." If we all would do this, just think of the waste we would eliminate and how much better our gardens and landscapes would look and grow.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699 or by e-mail to news@semissourian.com.<I>

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