I WAS HELPING a customer the other day who had recently moved to Mississippi from another state. They had been to a few of our garden centers to get a feel for what types of plants we use around here. I’m not sure from which state they had come, but they loved our lush landscaping style here in the south. I’m guessing they moved here from the west coast by the descriptions of the low water tolerant plants and rock mulches they were accustomed to. One thing I could tell for sure is that they loved it here and were very excited about getting their hands into some soil. I felt like it was my duty to break it to them that our soil would need some amending before they could run their hands through it. I showed them all of our choices of soil amendments to choose from. We have a grit mix used for breaking up the clay soil to aid in soil porosity. We have composted materials for soil enrichment such as mushroom compost and black Kow composted manure. These are all great ways to make your planting soil richer for the plants roots.
THERE IS NO BETTER thing to add to your soil than compost. That conversation got lengthy, and I realized that there are so many ways to compost, it must be confusing. Compost is the secret ingredient to bounty for edibles and vibrant blooms. When organic matter decomposes, it’s called compost. Decomposition is the job of microscopic organisms and worms. The transformation turns what would be waste into a useful, nutrient dense soil conditioner. Long after compost is added to the soil it continues to decompose depositing its benefits. I began to reminisce about all the different ways of composting that I have seen and done in my life. Growing up in rural Madison I thought everyone kept their table scraps after every meal to be thrown on a huge heap of steaming hot compost pile. We were a family of seven that ate every meal together that we could, which produced a lot of table scraps. We had two compost bins that were 10‘ x 10‘ square with 4 foot high sides. We constantly added grass clippings, food scraps, animal manure from our “zoo“ mix with hay from the horses stalls. We dumped each day’s gardening debris and food scraps in one of the boxes, and with the help of a lot of earthworms and microscopic organisms, the pile of scraps eventually turned into compost. I remember there were times that the soil would get so steamy hot that I could barely hold it in my hand. I realize this is a lot of composting for some situations but we had an organic garden that was an acre large!
COMPOSTING IS a big commitment. It will take some planning to make it fun and successful. The first thing to start is choosing which compost method will work for you. By putting some thought into your compost operation you can find a system that works for your lifestyle and garden needs. If your garden is small or if you have mobility problems, a compost tumbler should be sufficient. If your garden is large, you’ll need to make a large bin or two out of hog wire. Over the years, Mimi and I have taken on composting on a large scale and on a smaller scale, depending on where we were living at the time. No matter the size of your operation, you’ll have to plan your food scrap collection system. Done right, it won’t be a smelly hassle which is a a turnoff that eventually discourages you from continuing. We discovered that if you don’t have a place to put food scraps while chopping fruits vegetables, they will probably wind up in the trash. Pick your container and have it sitting somewhere you’ll see it and use it. If you use a container with a tight lid, just make sure you empty it every few days. We really like a compost bin that has filtered airflow, which keeps the fruit from fermenting and getting smelly. Our composting collecting bin was always under the sink, close to where most of the chopping was going on. We emptied ours every few days. One method that we discovered sort of by accident, is what we call the freezer method. When Mimi and I go on a trip and don’t want our trash cans to stink, I take the trash bag and put it in the freezer. When we get home, I put the frozen debris in the back of my truck and throw it in our dumpster at work. She didn’t know I was doing this for a while until I forgot I had put a bag of trash in our deep freezer and forgot about it. Later, when Mimi looked in the deep freeze, she looked at me like I was crazy when she found a bag of trash. I put it in my truck and just kept walking. We realized then that we could add table scraps to a bag in the freezer and never deal with the smell. We would add this to our tumbler when the bag became full enough.
WHATEVER SIZE compost system you decide to go with, you will need to start with two batches of compost. One will be for collecting stuff, and one will be for mixing the compost. Having two batches will allow you to work in smaller batches to yield faster results and it’s a lot less labor. I love the tumblers with two compartments because they make maintenance a breeze.
Something to consider when composting is if you add too many food scraps or ‘green’ material or too little ‘brown’ material, which is soils and yard debris, it will smell bad. Compost is all about balance. If you are dealing with flies and odor, the nitrogen in the ’green’ material is producing too many enzymes. If it’s moving too slowly, there aren’t enough ’greens’. I think we have finally found that we are shooting for 1/3 greens to 2/3 browns. While you are at it, don’t forget to remove produce stickers. They are made of plastic and won’t ever break down. I have seen produce stickers in our soil years later from some that got past us.
IT WON'T BE unusual to see mushrooms or fungal growth in your compost pile. Fungi are in essential part of the process. You can manage the fungal growth by aerating the compost pile and maintaining the balance of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’. ‘Brown’s’ cool the compost by promoting airflow. A hot compost pile is one that is turned properly and kept moist, which helps the organisms break down material faster, as opposed to leaving it unattended. You can get these results with a compost pile, tumbler or bin. You have to remember that composting is a slow process, and it becomes a way of life. The commitment to compost living is fun and full of room for experimenting. Things will go wrong now and then. You may go out to your pile and find that Miss O’possum has taken up residence in your compost heap or when you walk up, the smell hits you between the eyes, you can lure her out with a can of wet canned cat food or add more brown materials to your pile to aerate.
I WOULD SUGGEST keeping a compost log so you can write down the things that you did right and the things you did wrong. Remember this could become a part of your lifestyle for years so having notes to refer to will be important and you’ll probably have some compost stories to chuckle about. Composting has more immediate benefits that you can see in your garden and bank account. Store-bought alternatives to homemade compost can be costly. Compost feeds the soil better than any commercial fertilizer, organic or synthetic. This winter have fun building or buying the composting system that fits your lifestyle. Figure out how to make it not be a hassle but something fun as you watch the steam come off your beautiful heap of goodness. Be patient and be ready to see the best gardening results you’ve ever had. We need to keep our minds and hands busy while the pandemic rages on. What better way than adding a new routine to your life that doesn’t require crowds or money…just a little for thought and research. It’s simply simple!