Compost: It ain't pretty, it's rich and powerful
By Farmer Bubba Scott
When writing these columns, I always try and be current with the gardening calendar. A good example is, what are my plans for the farm this week? For experienced gardeners, you all know what to do, and you're doin' it. For others, it's still a learning process that I'm trying to keep fun and simple. So if my information seems childlike at times, good. I never seem to have grown up as far as I can tell.
Most people are at the end of their gardening season. This means a whole lot of old plants are ready to be pulled out of the soil and taken somewhere. Hopefully this old vegetation will make it to the compost pile.
Now that you have a good idea of what it takes to grow your own food, the next step is what to do with your garden leftovers.
It's time to talk about composting.
Most everyone has started a garden at some time or other, but I wonder how many people really compost? Just like growing a garden, composting successfully takes work. And to make the work easier, I'm going to show you how to keep it simple.
For starters, if you have a can or bucket in the kitchen that is collecting waste for the garden, don't wait too long to get it to the compost pile. My suggestion is take your kitchen waste out to the pile sooner rather than later.
Also, how can you tell good compost? The more happy, lunching out earthworms you find, the better.
The most common type of composting used by home gardeners is aerobic composting. The use of air to decompose garden waste. The other type is anaerobic, which keeps air out of the compost process.
BUBBA NOTE: Think of composting like eating a meal. Say you're eating lunch at a spot recently recommend in the GLOB. If you eat something light, like a good hearty salad, you'll feel like going back to work. A light meal will be digested faster than a heavier meal like, say, a burger and fries. The heavier meal will stay with you awhile. In some cases, a long while. The light meal would be aerobic composting and the heavy meal would be anaerobic composting.
The most important part of composting is location. The right spot for your compost pile is as important as it was to find your perfect garden spot. If you have a backyard, you have a good location. If you don't, find a friend who shares your love of gardening and has a backyard, and ask if you can set one up there. You'll be getting people involved and interested in growing food. And that's a good thing.
Here is the number 1 secret of compost: Over time, everything breaks down and decays, but -- and this is very important to keep in mind -- some things take longer than others. Corncobs, carrot tops, potato peels, and melon rinds fall in the SLOWER category. Grass clippings, old plants, lettuce, and leaves break down fast. This is why you should have at least two piles going at the same time. A pile for slow decaying, heavy, solid waste, and a second pile for the lightweight waste.
I have a compost tumbler (above), but this high-tech approach can be deceiving. The product guide says you can get compost in 14 days. This is only true if the raw material is real fine to begin with. Tumblers don't work for the SLOWER decaying, heavier, dense matter.
I have also created a way to get hot water during the composting process. I put a container of water inside a barrel with grass, hay, and plants, which are decomposing aerobically - using air to break down the organic matter. It creates rich compost and heat at the same time. Now that's high-tech.
BUBBA NOTE: When adding material to a compost pile, don't just throw 'em on the top and walk off. You need to turn the pile over, and if it's dry, add water. If you leave the stuff on top, something is going to digest your compost ingredients before the worms get to it.
For larger items that take longer to compost, I use the anaerobic method. This method needs no air. I use a black plastic bag or barrel. Once the bag is almost filled up, I add some horse manure, green grass, and water. I try and work any air out, and then tie the bag tightly closed. Then it sits in full sun and I don't open it for a couple of weeks. This process 'cooks' the material at a temperature that can reach 150 degrees or higher. Once the matter is decayed to the point of being mushy, it goes into the aerobic pile to break down even more.
BUBBA NOTE: The liquid that will accumulate in the plastic bag is called 'compost tea' (photo at top). This is a great liquid fertilizer for your next garden, but that's for another BTFH column.
To create good compost quickly, you need to keep the pile moist but not soggy, and you need to turn the compost about every three days. When you see a light gray look to the center of the compost pile, this is a good sign. It means it's cookin' correctly. It also means the pile is drying out. Add a little water to keep those little composting families happy.
There are many ways to make compost bins. I like to use my imagination and use what I have on hand. I mean really. It's all about the composting not the aesthetics -- it doesn't have to look pretty, it just has to be pretty good compost.
Once you have compost, which is called the 'brown and green mixture,' you should take good care of it until you are ready to use it.
Now for the answer to an important question. How do I keep ants out of my compost pile?
You don't have to. If ants are in the compost pile, that's good. At least they're not on you. The ants are part of the process -- doin' their job of breakin' down the garden waste.
Here's what I do with the ants on my farm. I let 'em party with the waste until it's time to use the compost. Then about a week before I'm ready to use the compost, I boil an orange or some type of citrus in water, let the mixture steep over night and in the morning I pour the mixture on the mounds. I hate to spoil their party, but these guys just move on to another GLOB lunch spot.
One final note. Even though you may not have a garden, if you eat, you're involved in farming and the gardening process. Remember when you eat out at a restaurant that someone, somewhere grew what's on your plate or in the produce section at the store. As the GLOB's LOCAL Digest Columnist Val Leitner says, it's important to support your local farmer.
Aloha from the desk, on Farmer Bubba's Farm.
Do you have a gardening question for Farmer Bubba or a photo of your garden you would like to share? Email Bubba or add your question in the comment window below, and Bubba will try to reply as quickly as possible.