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Apr 152008
 

By Harriet Blake

Your first reaction might be YUCK. Composting is not for the squeamish among us.

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A compost pile can be started any time of the year.

The definition alone is enough to turn you off: the aeorobic decomposition of biodegradable organic matter, performed by aerobic bacteria, yeasts and fungi and in the later stages, assisted by ants, nematodes and worms.

Organic gardening expert Howard Garrett describes compost as “nature’s own living fertilizer.” It can be bought at the store or for the environmentally conscious among us, made at home.

Garrett says a compost pile can be started any time of the year, in the sun or shade. Anything that was once living is good for a compost pile, such as food scraps including banana peels, grass clippings, weeds, tree trimmings, animal manure, bark and sawdust.

Mix all of these together and place the mixture in the ground (known as static composting) or in a compost bin (usually a cage of wire with an open or closed top). He says the best combination is a compost made of 80 percent vegetative matter and 20 percent animal waste. It should be a mixture of coarse and fine-textured materials so that air can circulate through the pile because a key component in the process is oxygen.

The pile should be turned or stirred several times a week with a long-handled stick – a pitch fork works nicely — to help the decomposing process. Water also is key. Garrett says a compost pile should be watered, especially in hot climates, so that its texture is kept moist, similar to a squeezed-out sponge.

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Marion Wadsworth, 48, of Grapevine, Texas, has been composting for the past decade.

Once the ingredients are no longer recognizable, decomposition is complete and the compost is ready to be added to the soil. The compost should be a dark brown with a soft and crumbly texture. Besides adding it to the dirt in the garden, it can be used as mulch around outdoor plantings, or lightly applied as a top dressing for turf.

Marion Wadsworth, 48, of Grapevine, Texas, has been composting for the past decade because she was interested in the organic way of doing things. “ I really have a problem with putting anything in the dump heap,” she says.

Wadsworth throws everything into her compost bin: coffee grinds, peels of all fruits, broccoli stalks, rusty lettuce leaves, leaves, grass clippings, even leftovers from a restaurant visit.

“It’s important to include browning leaves to give the pile carbon – this offsets the greens,” she says. Her fifth grader, Michael, often helps, serving as “ my main compost taker-outer.”

Ideally, Wadsworth says, “I’d have two compost piles. One that is nearly decomposed and one that is still working. The best compost is always at the bottom of the pile.” She says that it takes about six months to a year for a compost pile to completely decompose.

One question that comes to mind to the squeamish among us, what about critters? Do compost piles attract rats, possums and other creatures? Wadsworth says she doesn’t worry about this too much since she has a good-sized yard and keeps the compost pile at a distance from the house. She also uses a covered bin which helps.

Wadsworth uses her compost in her flower beds as well as under the crape myrtle trees. “I would use it more in my vegetable garden, but that requires a finer compost. The more you stir it up, the finer it gets. My compost doesn’t get all the way decomposed.”

And what about the garbage disposal, you ask? Doesn’t that help by not adding to the trash heap? Yes and no. The problem with disposing of food scraps in the garbage disposal is that it contributes to the overall waste stream – something that the green side of us wants to resist.

The country’s interest in composting is growing. As many local towns start to limit the amount of trash that can be collected, composting is being seen as a smart and environmentally conscious solution. Some towns are selling compost bins to assist in this endeavor. The city of Phoenix, for instance, has a program where old garbage bins are recycled into composting units with the addition of a couple holes. The city sells these jerry-rigged composters for a nominal fee to residents.

Composting bins of many types are readily available online at sites such as cleanairgardening, green culture and even, Amazon.com. They can also be purchased at Target. Prices vary from about $30, for the simplest wire cage bin, to as high as $200 to $400 for enclosed drum-style bins in which you can spin the contents, which makes the turning of the compost much easier.

The nice part about the rotating drum-style bins is that they come with stands and cranks, making them easier to operate. These bins will produce compost in several months, compared to static in-the-ground piles that can take up to a year. The drums come in various sizes, starting at about 50 gallons.

And for the handy among us, Lowe’s will provide you with instructions on how to build a compost bin in about five hours.

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