Last time, we here at Crucial Vacuum talked about how to get a garden up and running if your space is limited. This time, we’re going to discuss a way to make your garden better than you ever thought it could be. This doesn’t just apply to apartment gardeners. If you’re starting a backyard (or front yard!) garden, these tips will come in handy for you as well. We’re talking about compost, or Black Gold.
Compost, is basically decomposed organic matter that has broken down until it forms a black soil additive. This stuff is the secret behind many a gardener’s giant tomatoes or bumper squash crop. Many people confuse compost with fertilizer, and while both boost plant growth, they work in completely different ways. Simply put, fertilizer is for the plant, while compost is for the soil.
Compost works by adding nutrients to the soil that are released slowly. Additionally, composted soil retains artificial fertilizers longer by binding soil together in a more efficient manner. This makes the soil more erosion-resistant while increasing drainage. Bacteria found in compost also help the soil, fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into forms that are usable by your plants. Studies have shown that compost also increases the hardiness of plants, increasing their resistance to blights and diseases.
The best way to use compost is before you plant or transplant. When making your rows or hills, put 1 part compost to 1 part soil and blend together with your hoe or shovel. This means that if you’re sowing to a depth of four inches, put four inches of compost on top and till the compost in. During the growing season, you can lay compost directly on the soil around the plants. It is important that you only use finished compost when doing this or the continuing decomposition in the raw compost can injure your plant.
Another way that we use compost is by making a “tea” out of it. Using a burlap sack, soak a shovel full of compost in four gallons of water for an hour. Remove the sack and use the liquid to water your plants. Put the wet compost back in your bin. This compost tea is a great natural fertilizer that carries nutrients to your plants without the wait.
How to Make Compost
Cold composting is your basic leave it and forget it system. You take organic trash from your yard and everyday life and put them in a pile. Then you forget about it for a year and the material will decompose and become compost. You add material as you have it and you don’t have to worry about ratios of brown to green material. Your compost will be ready for use in about a year.
Hot composting is what most people think about when they hear about composting. This system uses a series of bins and a basic ratio of carbon to nitrogen items to create compost. The good part is that hot composting can produce usable compost in as little as a couple of months. Hot composting is started by adding two-part “brown” materials to 1-part “green”. Green materials are fresh organic waste, such as orange peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, and grass clippings or other kitchen scraps (but never meat or pet waste). Brown materials are dried leaves, sawdust, wood chips, or even shredded paper.
To start hot compost, add the materials to a pile or in a bin. Dampen with water until the moisture content is like a damp rag. Let it sit for 48 hours. At that point, take the compost’s temperature every morning. When the temperature reaches 150 degrees Fahrenheit, use a pitchfork and turn the compost. This introduces oxygen and cools the pile. Keep turning and moistening the pile until the temperature drops to about 100 degrees and looks like dark crumbly dirt. Your compost is now ready to use.
In case you’re wondering, proper compost will not stink, nor will it attract flies. If you do notice a foul odor, it means that you either have too much green stuff or the pile needs turned. Dump the bin out and put it back in one fork at a time while adding in more brown stuff. If you see flies, place a layer of brown over the compost.
On Compost Bins
Because each pile of compost takes time to cook, most gardeners have three or four bins of compost at any given time. One is finished compost, another two are in various stages of cooking, and the last is being built up. Compost bins come in all shapes and sizes. You can always buy one from most hardware stores. Unless you need one that your homeowner’s association will approve of, it’s much cheaper to make one. In a pinch, a large Rubbermaid container with a lid will do. Use bungie cords to secure the top and drill 1/8” holes randomly to allow for drainage. When you need to turn the compost, instead of using a pitchfork, just kick the bin around the yard a few times (this is why you need the bungie cords). If you desire something a little more permanent, we at Crucial make our own compost bins out of four pallets. You remove the bottom slats; stand them up to form a basic frame, using corner brackets to hold them together. An even more permanent option can be made from cement blocks with two or three bins, with complete plans found here.
Compost is best used in conjunction with fertilizers to encourage maximum yield from your vegetables and plants. Making compost is a great way to reduce the amount of trash you put curbside each week and save you money in the long run. Let us know in the comments how your adventures in composting have gone.