April 9 Column: Making Compost


compostWith the garden season getting underway, I decided a column on compost and composting would be in order. After all, if we take care of the soil in our gardens, it in turn will take care of our plants and — in the case of veggies — provide us with higher yields. Sounds good to me!

Here is a link to my column in today’s edition of The Spokesman-Review: Compost is the answer. I had the pleasure of meeting Kris Major, who is the education coordinator for the City of Spokane Solid Waste Disposal dept. She is in charge of the Master Composters/Recyclers program, in which folks learn how to create compost and then share that knowledge with the community.

As usual, I had way more information than I had room for in my column. So for additional information on compost, please scroll down below this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden!” video to view it.

More information from my interview with Kris Major:

Q. What is the most ideal size compost bin?

A. People don’t need to spend a lot of money on compost bins. If they have chicken wire laying about, or old pallets, you can make a bin, or you can go out to the feed stores to buy a bin — although they can get very expensive.

Q. Why is it a good idea to chop up the materials you add to a pile?

A. It speed up the process, increases surfaces that microorganisms will chow down on. People don’t need to buy or rent a chipper shredder, they can run their mower over a pile of leaves. If you’re going to be putting whole apples in, cut them up a bit. That’s only if you’re in a hurry!

Q. How often should a pile be turned?

A. If you’re looking at the science of the pile (right pile size, right ratio, right moisture) it’s going to start getting warm (170 deg. F.) Microorganisms are generating that heat. The temperature plateaus after 5-7 days, and then it cools off. If you want to get it warm again, you turn the pile. You’re moving the outside to the inside and the top to the bottom, checking the moisture and adding it as needed. Microorganisms have a new food source and become active again. After 2-3 times of heat building up, the ready food source has already been eaten, then the organisms that like a cool pile (earthworms, springtails, etc.) get to work and the pile continues to decompose — it’s just being done by different set of organisms. It’s how nature works. The pile is shrinking. Maybe turn it once a week or as pile starts to cool off, but know that after the 3rd or 4th time, it won’t get as warm and that’s OK.

Q. How do you add compost to your garden? (how much and when?)

A. Ideally 1/4 to 1/3 compost to a 1/3 soil to 1/3 sand to mix up a potting soil, or apply 2 to 3 inches to garden beds 3-4 weeks before planting. Now would be a great time to add compost. Or top-dress beds and it will eventually work its way down. You can also top-dress your lawn, which will shade the grass and help it retain moisture which will be important if we have a hot, dry summer.

Q. What’s the easiest method for a gardener to make compost?

A. Locating an area in the backyard that is going to be convenient for getting the materials, like next to the garden. It should be situated close to water, and aesthetically-pleasing (if neighbors will see it). Picking the best holding bin for their needs. It doesn’t matter what type bin you use, just something that holds the materials in the correct mass. You want to build a 3x3x3 feet pile, no bigger than 5x5x5 which might compress too much and pile will go anaerobic. It’s the microorganisms that are doing the decomposing. The challenge is getting the materials at the right time of year. High nitrogen materials like grass clippings tend to be available in the spring, and the carbon materials like fallen leaves are more available in the fall. How do you time everything? Maybe saving leaves from the fall. Or finding manures or going to the local coffee shop to get coffee grounds which are high in nitrogen. Or if you work in an office, you can use shredded materials. Or sawdust that’s not from treated lumber, shredded cardboard. Pine needles are usable, best if shredded up, they don’t make an acidic compost which is a common myth. Finished compost is neutral no matter what you put into it.

Q. What about adding weeds to the compost pile?

A. Don’t put weeds in your compost pile if they have seeds or are spread by rhizomes (underground runners from the roots). If it’s before they go to seed, it’s probably OK but backyard compost won’t get hot enough to kill off the weed seeds. I subscribe to a Clean Green bin (for yard waste) – it’s a weekly service and you can put yard waste in there (weeds, sprayed lawn, meats, etc. because at Barr-Tech, they can maintain high enough heat to kill weed seeds, etc. Green bin will take food and food-soiled paper (napkins, paper plates, and pizza boxes can go in with the green stuff).