How to guide Composting

It’s an unwritten rule: craftsmen buy Milwaukee tools, pro golfers use Cobra drivers, and serious gardeners compost. You can buy or build a composter. It can be as elaborate as composter. It can be as elaborate as a gazebo and cost around $500, or under $100 and hidden behind the gardening shed. Nature doesn’t really care. My first composter was a roll of plastic and another of fence-wire strung around four slender ash trees on a hill. The slope of the hill allowed me to load from the top and scoop the lovely, rich, black compost out the bottom with ease. The first year, I thought the trees might perish from the heat.

What goes in a composter? Almost anything green, or things that were once green. You can add your grass clippings, provided you didn’t use a weed killer. Chemical fertilizers are fine; they encourage microbial growth. The leaves you rake in the fall make excellent compost, again provided they haven’t been treated with pesticide, which has a half-life of up to 360 days. Treated leaves will potentially destroy the very microbes you are trying to encourage. You can throw in the hedge clippings, chrysanthemum cuttings, the tops of iris, dead dahlia stalks, dried tulip leaves, that forlorn Christmas tree by the side of the garage, leftover salad, the broccoli no one wanted, melon rinds, even tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells. Wood ash, which is very alkaline, can be added, at a ratio of 1:30 (one gallon to 30 gallons, for example). You can also add cardboard, newspaper, sawdust and weeds, though the weed seeds may survive even at temperatures in excess of 130 degrees, the maximum ‘cooking’ temperature in a composter. Hotter, and the weed seeds will die, but so will the microbes. If you can’t tell how hot your compost is, buy a thermometer at a garden store. If you can’t achieve a temperature of at least 100 degrees, you can also buy a biological booster at the same garden store and add it to your compost.

As a rule, you want to keep the ratio of brown (tree branches) to green (like grass) at 25:1 to keep the pile ‘cooking’ (sustain the process of decomposition, for those with a scientific bent). Decomposition also improves the smaller the objects are, because the microbes have a larger surface area to work on. So, if possible, do mulch grass and leaves, and use a shredder/chipper on that Christmas tree, even the needles, which have a waxy coating that keeps them from degrading. Chop the lilac hedge clippings, too. In fact, anything larger than your thumb is a good candidate for the shredder/chipper, including eggshells.

Two of the most important elements in composting are air and water. If your composter is a roll of fencing, you’re in good shape: wind and rain will do a lot of the work for you. If you are thinking of buying a barrel composter, make sure it has side vents and do add the occasional splash of water, but not too much. Compost has very precise moisture requirements. A handful should have about the same dampness as a wrung-out washcloth.

Plant pH is another vital consideration in compost. Both pine needles and oak leaves are very acidic, but hay and grass are alkaline. Try to keep pH materials in balance, or – if you can’t do that – test compost before using it as a soil amendment. Oak-leaf compost on a strawberry bed will produce small, bitter fruit. Compost made primarily of grass clippings spread around rhododendrons or azaleas will mean smaller blooms and – after a season – unhealthy-looking plants.

As population multiples, and waste management companies reach their landfill capacity, it becomes more and more important to recycle household waste, especially yard waste. Composting fills this need. More important, your shrubs, ornamentals.