Why Compost is Important and How to Create Your Own Compost
The three most important words in real estate are; “location, location, location” but in gardening they are; “compost, compost, compost.”
Compost or mulch is organic material that can change the poor western soils that will not grow much of anything to excellent soil. Compost helps release minerals that are tightly locked into the fine particles that make up clay soil. Compost added to sandy soil will provide moisture holding elements so water and nutrients won’t drain quickly through the sand. Compost with its organic origins will cool the soil to help perennials get through drought and summer heat. Compost will create soil in rocky ground just through the simple procedure of adding organic materials to the scree soil. These are the reasons compost is the answer to successful gardening in the Rocky Mountains.
Today we use the word “Green” to signify recycling. The younger generation assumes that the older generation’s indifference to “Green” has caused world wide problems. They are not aware that our milk and sodas were sold in organic silica-sand glass containers, not throw away plastic, which were cleaned and recycled over and over. It’s forgotten that baby diapers were made of organic cotton flannel, not throw-a-ways, and hung outside in the sun for bleaching and sanitizing. Terminology isn’t important but recycling is and “Compost” is simply recycling “green” products to create organic material that when added to the soil produces a miracle!
Examples of Green Yard Waste:
- Grass clippings
- Fruit or vegetable scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Fresh animal manure
- Healthy green plant material
Examples of Brown Yard Waste:
- Dead leaves
- Shredded paper
- Corn cobs
- Pine needles
- Shrub branches
- Tree prunings
When mixing your own compost from anything on the “brown yard waste” list, always mix 3 parts brown yard waste to 1 part green yard waste.
A layer of compost, placed on a garden in early spring and again in late fall as soon as the ground freezes, magically becomes part of the soil. The worm activity helps move it into the original soil. Worms in garden soil are probably the number one indicator of the health of any soil. Earthworms aerate the soil and their castings infuse the soil with enzymes, bacteria, organic matter and plant nutrients.
Worms are wonderful, but nothing is quite as attractive as rich black soil on flowerbeds. Even more important are the many studies that say using compost or mulch will cut fertilizer usage by half. Other studies have found that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers speed up the decay process of organic matter so that it is released into the air as carbon dioxide rather than stored in the soil as carbon so it is wasted.
Composting methods are whatever works for each individual gardener. At the Idaho gardens where we have more room we use a very relaxed method of composting called cold composting. We simply pile up yard-trimmings as they come, leaves, grass, plants or shrubs, whatever we have. It is mixed and saved in piles about three feet tall and wide. Many of our neighbors have built bins for their compost but we haven’t. If the wind dispenses compost to surrounding areas it’s OK because it’s all organic.
We refrain from using kitchen scraps because they attract skunks. Over winter we anticipate that the deer may need some of the compost materials for survival so we don’t fence it. There is no need to be finicky about a compost pile, simply give it time, turn it and water it occasionally, or even throw a shovel full of good soil or manure on top to introduce more microbe and worm activity and allow Mother Nature a year to do the rest.
What Not to Compost
1. Dairy products like fats, oils or meats
2. Pet and human waste
3. Diseased plants
4. Yard trimmings treated with herbicides: When communities recycle, if weed killer treated grass clippings get composted, they could wind up back in your own garden and destroy plants. Bag “weed and feed” broad-leaf sprayed grass clippings and place them in the regular garbage can, not the green waste container.
5. Yard trimmings treated with pesticides can reduce the number of microorganisms that survive in the decomposing in the soil. Our garden worm population was all but destroyed one year when we sprinkled pellets of a snail killer pesticide on the ground. The worms either died or moved deeper into the ground to get away from the pesticide. When I started planting the ground, no worms could be found and I vowed to never use this chemical again!
6. Black Walnut leaves and nuts: Black Walnut trees grow and propagate very well in the west so many home-owners cultivate them in their yards. When these are recycled a chemical called juglone is released and can be damaging to many plants. Other types of nut shells make excellent compost by adding the bulk necessary for oxygen.
7. Use a minimum of pine needles: They add much needed acidity to the compost but are heavy and decompose slowly so go easy on pine needles.
8. Wood ashes and egg shells did not work in my alkaline/clay soils and seemed to sterilize the ground probably due to the high levels of calcium already in our soils, so I decided not to use these.
Healthy soil grows healthy plants and compost gives both. It helps soil stay moist and drain well. Along with that miracle, compost adds air to the soil to keep the plant’s roots healthy and feeds the plants. Compost as a soil conditioner improves every type of soil and grows more healthy and beautiful perennials.