Start a compost pile this season for your future gardens

Published 12:03 am Sunday, September 7, 2014

Autumn is a great time to build a compost pile. The falling leaves will give you a good start. Compost is partially decomposed organic waste. It is a great soil conditioner, adding nutrients and substance to your soil. It increases earthworm populations and reduces soil compaction and crusting. You can purchase compost but it is really very simple to create your own pile. Don’t be scared off by the articles that get too technical, the composting process is really very simple.

Compost piles need both brown and green materials. Brown materials such as leaves, straw, sawdust, newspaper, yard waste and dry grass clippings have a high carbon/low nitrogen ratio. Green materials are just the opposite, with a high nitrogen/low carbon ratio. Green materials include fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegtable waste, egg shells, hair, livestock manures, coffee grounds and tea bags. Generally use more brown than green materials.

The materials need oxygen and moisture to complete the composting process. This requires turning the pile a couple of times a month. Turning or mixing the materials aerates the pile and evenly distributes the heat generated by decomposition which speeds up the composting process. Turning the pile when you add fresh materials will move them to the center of the pile and will also speed decomposition. When you turn the pile, check the moisture. Add water to dampen the pile if necessary but do not overwater, it will slow the process and create a foul odor.

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So how big does this pile need to be and where are you going to put it? A pile that is about 3-feet wide and 3-feet tall works well. Put the pile close enough to the garden to encourage use. Avoid areas where there is standing water. You can build or buy a simple structure for it if desired. Wire or wood structures or a combination of the two work well. Simply remember to leave a space to get a pitchfork or shovel through so you can turn the pile.

Whether using a pile or some type of structure, consider having three piles or sections, each one in a different stage of decomposition. This will allow you to have compost ready for use on a routine basis.

Some materials should not be put in your compost pile. Diseased plants should always be separately disposed of. Putting them in a compost pile may lead to the spread of disease into other areas of the garden. The same principle applies to weedy plants that have gone to seed. Putting them in the compost pile will lead to weed problems as the compost is spread in the garden. Sawdust or wood shavings from preserved wood should also be avoided as they may contain harmful chemicals.

Following are guidelines published by the Mississippi State University Extension Service that will help you with basic questions as you work your compost pile. Good luck and remember, composting is really a very simple process. If you don’t “do it right” the only result will generally be that the materials will be slower to break down into usable compost.

4Have a bad odor in your pile? The problem may be not enough air. Turn the materials in the pile; add dry material if too wet.

4Is the center of the pile dry? Moisten and turn the pile.

4Is the compost damp and warm only in the middle? This can be caused by having a pile that is too small or simply cold weather. Collect and add more material; turn pile to aerate.

4Is the pile damp and sweet-smelling but won’t heat up? There’s a lack of nitrogen. Add nitrogen source, green material, or nitrogen fertilizer.

4Does the interior look or smell charred? The pile is too large; reduce size, add water.

For this month’s garden calendar, see page 3C.


Karen O’Neal is an Adams County Master Gardener.