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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


The World Seems a Little off Kilter

THE WORLD SEEMS a little off kilter. This seems like a good time to talk about creating your own compost at home. It’s a fun experiment, it saves money and gives fantastic results. There is lots of info about composting on the World Wide Web so you won’t be alone in your trials and tribulations. 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 were used 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 in 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 hand 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 cow composted manure. We even offer mycorrhiza for adding to your compost pile to make it come alive faster. 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, as I realize there are so many ways to compost that it gets confusing. Compost is the secret ingredient to bountiful 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 by depositing its benefit. I began to reminisce about all the different ways of compost things 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. We were a family of seven who ate every meal together when we could and that produced a lot of table scraps. We had two compost bins that were 10’ x 10’ square with four foot sides. We constantly added grass clippings, food scraps, and animal manure mixed with hay from the horses stalls. We would dump that day’s debris and food scraps in one of the boxes helping it break down with the help of a lot of earth worms and microscopic organisms. I remember there were times that the soil would get so steamy hot I could barely hold it in my hand. I realize this is a lot of composting for some situation but we had an organic garden that was an acre.

Composting is a big commitment and it will take some planning to make it fun and successful. The first thing to do is choose 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 gardens needs. If your garden is small or if you have mobility problems a compost tumbler should be sufficient. If your garden is large you 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 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 become a smelly pile you get turned off by and eventually get discouraged. We discovered that if you don’t have a place to put food scraps when you’re in the middle of chopping vegetables and fruits they probably will wind up in the trash can. Pick your container and have it sitting somewhere where your 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 stash collecting bin that has filtered airflow that will keep the fruit from fermenting which gets smelly. Our compost collecting bin was always under the sink close to where most of the chopping was going on. We would empty ours every few days.

One method that we discover 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 when we get home I’ll 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 into our dumpster at work. She didn’t know I was doing this for a while until I had put a bag of trash in our deep freezer and forgotten 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 that we could add table scraps to a big bag in the freezer and never deal with the smell. We would add this to our compost 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 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.

A FEW THINGS TO consider when composting are materials and balance. If you add too many food scraps or “green“ material versus not enough “brown“ material, like soil and yard debris, it will smell bad. Composting is all about balance. If you are dealing with flies and an 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 one-third greens and two-thirds browns. While you are at it don’t forget to remove produce stickers. They are made of plastic that won’t break down. I have seen produce stickers in our soil a year later from some that sneak past us. It won’t be unusual to see mushrooms or fungal growth in your compost pile. Fungi are an essential part of the process.

You can manage the fungal growth by aerating the compost pile and maintaining the balance of greens and browns. Browns cool the compost by promoting airflow. A hot compost pile is one that is turned 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. When you come out and find Miss Opossum has taken up residence in your compost heap you can lure her out with a can of wet cat food and add more brown materials to your pile to aerate.

I would suggest keeping a compost log so you can write down the things you did right and the things you did wrong. Remember this could become part of your lifestyle for years so having notes to refer to will be important and you’ll probably have some composting 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.

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 ready to see the best gardening results you’ve ever had. We need to keep our minds and hands busy while the world seems a little off kilter, so what better way than to add a routine to your life that doesn’t require crowds or your money – just a little thought and research.

It’s simply simple.

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