Composting: The Secret To Gardening In Payson

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Redworms enjoy table scraps, and nail clippings make good composting material.

Those were just two of the tips gardeners learned at the composting class hosted by the University of Arizona Gila County Cooperative Extension and Gila County Community College.

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Gila County Extension teacher Marta Wadell shows off "nice stuff," the dark rich soil she created by composting her household and yard waste. What is in it? Banana peels, lint, bones, grapefruit, coffee grounds, grass clippings, pinecones and chicken manure.

The trick to growing a successful garden in Payson, where the soil is mostly made of decomposed granite, is an effective composting regime. Instead of sending home waste to the landfill, learn how to use it to keep your plants and gardens healthy.

"Dryer lint makes great compost material -- cotton wool and even rayon fabrics are biodegradable," composting aficionado and master gardener Marta Wadell told her adult students. "So, unless you are really keen on polyester, go ahead and add dryer lint to your pile."

The composting class gave beginners the knowledge to get started and helped experienced gardeners compost more effectively.

"When I scrape table scraps into the (compost) bin, the napkins and paper towels go too," she said.

Meat scraps are fine to compost, but they smell bad as they decompose. The odor should be a consideration when you choose a spot to start your compost pile.

Ask yourself, how close is it to the neighbors? Will the scent waft in your own bedroom window?

An easy rule to remember what can be composted: Anything that was once alive can go into a compost pile.

Chopped corn stalks and small twigs provide aeration and drainage as the base layer of a compost pile.

The next layer should be plant and kitchen refuse, which may include coffee grounds and crushed eggshells. Wire mesh can be used to surround the pile.

The microorganisms that degrade refuse in compost thrive best in a carbon nitrogen (CN) ratio of 30 parts to one.

So nitrogen-rich materials go into the next layer such as sandy loam 7:1 or fresh poultry manure 10:1.

Gardeners may never achieve this exact ratio, but a compost pile in the 25-35:1 range will do the job, Wadell said.

Ashes are not a good thing to add to a compost pile because the soil in Arizona is far too alkaline, Martell said.

Newsprint is fine -- it has a CN ratio of 50-200:1, but colored paper should not be added to the pile because of the dye.

Layers should be repeated and the pile may be as tall as five feet.

Shredding or grinding organic materials before they go into the pile help it decompose faster because more the surface area is exposed to the pile's beneficial bacteria.

"The material should feel about the consistency of a wet sponge," Martell said. "But if you squeeze it and it is dripping, it is too wet."

The Extension's Master Gardener Manual recommends turning the compost pile over at least once a month, twice if the materials that went into it are shredded. A pitchfork is the best tool for turning a pile.

"The more you experiment with composting the better you get at it," Martell said.

For more information, visit http:cals.arizona.edu/gila.

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