By Ruth Quade
Fall is an excellent time to compost because you have access to all of the leaves falling and all of the vegetation that you may clean up out of your yard. Begin to think about these materials as a resource rather than something to dispose. If you learn how to compost at home, by spring, you can have a rich soil amendment that can enhance your soil, improve your plant health and conserve water buy creating a healthy soil ecosystem. It all starts with soil health.
What is Compost?
Compost is a dark, loose, earthy smelling material that resembles soil but is packed with organic material and microbes that enhance your soil. Compost is made from decomposed organic (previously living) materials such as:
grass clippings, leaves, straw, manures, kitchen scraps. Compost isn’t a fertilizer but can be used to amend or supplement existing soils.
Why Should I Learn How to Compost?
Composting is a practical and convenient way to transform yard wastes into a resource. Compost enriches soil, increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, improves tilth and plant growth. Soil amended with compost requires as much as 30 percent less water. The use of compost also can decrease the need for chemical additives to lawns and gardens.
Composting returns organic matter to the soil in a usable form. Organic matter in the soil improves plant growth by helping to break up heavy clay soils, by adding water and nutrient-holding capacity to sandy soils, and by adding essential nutrients to any soil. Improving the soil is the first step toward improving the health of plants. Healthy plants help clean the air and conserve our soil, making Northern Colorado a healthier place to live.
What Can I Compost?
Anything that was once alive and plant-based can be composted. Non-woody yard wastes such as fallen leaves, grass clippings, weeds, and the remains of garden plants make excellent compost. Use care not to include noxious weeds, weed seeds, or diseased plants, as these materials may not be completely destroyed during the home composting process and could be reintroduced to the garden.
Anything growing in the yard is potential food for these tiny decomposers. Carbon and nitrogen from the cells of dead plants and dead microbes fuel the activity. The microorganisms use the carbon in leaves or woodier wastes as an energy source. Nitrogen provides the microbes with the raw elements of proteins to build their bodies.
Everything organic has a ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) in its tissues ranging from 500:1 for sawdust, to 15:1 for table scraps. A C:N ratio of 30:1 is ideal for the activity of compost. It can get complicated to think about mixing things in the appropriate ratio, so just simplify it by knowing that your need more Cs than Ns, or rather, browns and greens, respectively. Layering can be useful in arriving at these proportions initially, but a complete mixing of ingredients is preferable for the composting process. Other materials can also be used, such as weeds and garden wastes. Generally, brown materials, such as fallen leaves and sawdust, are high in carbon, while green materials such as grass clippings and weeds are high in nitrogen. Need some tools to get started? Try these tips, found here.
Biology and the compost party
The compost pile is really a teeming microbial farm. Bacteria start the process of decaying organic matter. They are the first to break down plant tissue and also the most numerous and effective composters. Fungi and protozoans soon join the bacteria and, somewhat later in the cycle, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, and earthworms do their part. When the compost is finished, it should be unrecognizable from the banana peel, egg shell or leaves.
The more surface area the microorganisms have to work on, the faster the materials will decompose. Chopping garden wastes with a shovel or machete, or running them through a shredding machine or lawn mower, will speed the composting process.
Now that you are on your way to learning how to make compost at home, check out this video on Composting for Beginners for more tips.