Composting: Taking Out The Trash

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Editor's note: This is the fourth in a seven-part series on water-wise gardening techniques for the Rim country. Each installment, written by local author and garden expert Barbara Bourscheidt, will appear in the Friday issue of the Roundup.

Composting is Mother Nature's way of taking out the trash. Given half a chance, she will help us get rid of all of our weeds, vegetable and fruit scraps, shrub prunings, garden refuse and even old newspapers.

In place of these undesirable items, she will leave us a gift of dark, rich, sweet smelling compost. An inch to three inches of compost makes the perfect pre-planting fertilizer for all vegetable crops, and is a great slow-release fertilizer and top dressing for all flowers, shrubs and trees.

We have the privilege of deciding whether we'd like our compost quickly, or slowly; whether to be actively or passively involved in the process. The fastest, and subsequently most labor intensive, method of getting compost is to build a 3-foot-by-3-foot-by-3-foot bin out of old pallets or some other sort of fencing material. Leave the front removable for access to the heap. Gather up the materials to be composted and chop, tear or cut into pieces about 1 inch in size. Add two to three parts carbon rich materials, such as dry plants, sawdust, straw, shredded newspapers, paper towels and napkins, and shredded dry plant stalks to one or two parts nitrogen rich materials such as kitchen scraps and manure.

Never place, grease, fats, dairy products or pet feces in the compost pile.

Pile materials loosely in the bin, making an even layer about 12 inches. Add about a half-inch or so of soil and sprinkle with a little water to make the pile moist, but not soggy.

By loosening and turning the pile with a pitchfork or auger every week or so, and keeping it uniformly moist, your compost may reach temperatures as high at 160 degrees and be ready to use in six to eight weeks.

Vegetable and pasta water is a fine alternative to using the hose to moisten the pile. Make a well in the center and pour in the cooled water.

A more passive method of composting is simply to build the pile of alternating layers one part green, two parts brown, and soil. Moisten as you build, then walk away. The bottom and middle of the pile will be composted in about one year.

Composting at home reduces the bulk going to landfills, reconditions our soil and adds nutrients that plants need, holds in moisture and neutralizes alkalinity. Use compost sparingly around native plants to avoid upsetting the chemical balance of that plant. Using compost to feed the soil, which in turn produces healthy plants, can eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

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