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Weed It and Reap: Compost, Your Garden Gravy

By: By Anni Jack, IBG Adult Education Director | 05/19/2022

Midden, rot heap, dressing, leaf mold, wormery, windrow, smells like green spirit, muck, bokashi… all terms for the black gold that we know as compost.  Compost creates nutrient-rich humus, balances pH, and increases water filtration and retention – making our gardens and farms crave compost like we do for gravy on a biscuit. 

There are benefits beyond our gardens and farms, too!  The EPA stated that 30% of landfill space is compostable material (“Composting At Home”. www.epa.gov, February 28, 2022, https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home).  Reducing waste from our homes saves landfill space, which in turn lessens our carbon footprint and landfill methane emissions.

While composting happens naturally, purposeful composting speeds up the process with fungi, bacteria, and decomposers. Composting requires a balance of fresh, nitrogen ingredients (greens) and dry, carbon ingredients (browns) with a splash of water and some air. 

Browns are food for decomposers while greens help decomposers grow and multiply, but if the balance is not correct the process slows, and we could get some gross results.  Too much nitrogen-love leads to slime and stink and too much carbon creates a dry, crispy compost that does not transform into humus. 

Yes, you can leave the pile to slowly compost in a bin, trench, or pile, but if you want the process to speed up, there are a few tips to keep in mind.

Compost Recipe

Find a dry, shady spot
🌱Greens – equal to 2-4 times the amount of browns
🌱Oxygen – alternate green and brown layer ingredients in small pieces
🌱Water – the matter should feel like a wrung-out sponge

Aerate the matter about once a week in the hot months and monthly in the winter by turning over with a pitchfork or using an aeration bin for composting. Temperatures should reach 130-140°, which means decomposer babies and material breakdown are occurring as well as death of bacteria and weeds.

Example of compost layering

There is also vermicomposting, which utilizes the awesomeness of worms.  This method is done indoors or outdoors, and it uses worm castings to finish compost matter quickly with nutrient rich properties.  It requires good drainage, carbon-heavy ‘brown’ material, and food waste to feed worms.  Red wiggler worms are a great option and temperatures need regulated between 55-75°.

So, what are some greens and browns you can add to compost? 

Greens: fresh, moist, natural ingredients
🌱Coffee and tea grounds

🌱Fruit and vegetable scraps
🌱Grass clippings and fresh plant waste
🌱Animal manure other than dog and cat

Browns: dry, natural material… some may be surprising!
🌱Dry plant material
🌱Dryer lint from natural cloth
🌱Pieces of natural fiber clothing
🌱Vacuum content with only biodegradable material
🌱Masking tape
🌱White water-based glue
🌱Paper bills, junk mail, and ticket stubs

There are materials that need avoided too! Stay clear of animal proteins, dairy, fats, limit citrus/garlic/onion (as they harm worms), synthetic coffee and tea bags, dog and cat poop, shiny/waxy paper and cardboard, sticky fruit labels, treated wood, and weed seeds as well as diseased plants.

Greens added to the compost pile

When is the compost complete?  There should be:
🌱No recognizable parts and pieces of the original ingredients
🌱An earthy, natural odor
🌱A dark brown color
🌱A smaller amount, about 1/3 of original amount
🌱Temperatures that match the air temperature

Finished compost

How do you use that finished compost?
🌱Use as a mulch! Adding 3-5” of compost over your garden soil will limit weeds and aid in water retention.
🌱Add compost to your planting holes, especially fall perennial planting and in your edible gardens.  Compost will add nutrients to promote root growth as plants head into the winter months. Edibles – especially heavy feeders – like melons, tomatoes, and squash will love the extra nitrogen!
🌱Make some tea for plants!  Steeping your compost in liquid is a quick way to deliver concentrated, absorbable nutrients to your plants.
Add to container garden soil! When planting, compost can be a third of the pot material.
🌱Top dress your lawn. Spread an inch or two over lawns to improve your soil structure and feed the turf.
🌱Feed those spring bulbs! Add to the hole when planting and dividing in the fall to make some seriously happy spring bloomers.
🌱Top dress your beds in spring and fall.  Just an inch or so with moisture and worms working the compost into your garden beds will help improve water absorption and limit runoff.

Enjoy the journey of your compost-creating adventures and spread that black gold gravy in your garden beds, reaping the rewards in harvest as well as reducing our landfill waste!

“I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost. If he came into the Garden of Eden, he would sniff excitedly and say: ‘Good Lord, what humus!’”       –   Quote by Karel Capek