In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
June, 2005
Regional Report

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Composting in an open pile makes it easier to "turn" the materials and keep them cooking.

Recycle Garden Waste into Rich Humus

Composting is a process that can spin "black gold" from recyclable waste materials. Compost is not a fertilizer, although it is true that when organic materials decompose into a finished product, the compost does contain slow-release nutrients in minimal amounts.

The goal of composting is to create your own soil amendment to add to the alkaline soils of our area; compost adds humus, improves drainage, and makes nutrients more available to plants. Making and using your own compost is a way to foster a richer soil and help maintain the microbial activity in your soil. So if you have the time and space, gather up grass clippings, fallen leaves, young weeds (those that haven't developed seed heads), coffee grounds, salad trimmings, and potato peelings, and throw them in a pit. Within 6 months to a year, you will have the stuff that great gardens are made of: fluffy, earth-scented, black humus.

Building a good compost pile, bin, or pit involves much more than just tossing organic materials into a big pile and walking away, although some people who have space use this method with varied success. My Italian family would pile up the cow and pig manure at the ranch in western Colorado and allow nature to do her job. In a year or more, it was a great source of well-aged, composted manure that was added to the alfalfa fields and pasture grasses, and the family vegetable garden. Whether it takes place in the corner of the barnyard, on the floor of the forest, or in a corner of your backyard, compost happens.

The "real" composter is much more sophisticated in his/her approach to making compost. A properly made pile, pit, or compost bin will heat up quickly (an indication that the microorganisms are doing their job), decomposition will proceed at a rapid rate, and the organic materials will not give off any bad odors.

A Recipe for Successful Compost
1. Mix 3 to 4 parts green matter (including grass clippings, young weeds, vegetable scraps) with 10 parts brown matter (leaves, straw, hay, twigs) and a couple of shovelfuls of loamy garden soil or bagged compost (to introduce the friendly bacteria). If you can shred or chop the coarser organic materials, they will begin to break down faster. I like to use an old rotary lawn mower to run over rows of organic material before adding it to the compost pile.

2. Add water. Composting materials need to be moistened slightly (don't make them soggy) to provide the right conditions for the microorganisms to break down the materials.

3. Stir occasionally. By turning the compost, or fluffing it up with a spading fork, you will expose its insides to air, which is akin to fanning a fire. The microorganisms need oxygen to work, and this helps to speed up the decomposition process. "Real" composters may turn their piles every three to four days. If you can mix or turn your compost weekly, that will be sufficient.


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