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Compost – your garden's best friend

Article by: Ted Rosen  |  Picture by: Ted Rosen
Compost – your garden's best friend
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Adding compost to your garden is the single best soil amendment for your garden. This article describes how to turn vegetable scraps from your kitchen and waste from your garden into valuable compost.

The idea of composting
Compost, or 'humus', is the result of bacteria, fungi, microbes, earthworms, snails and slugs eating the materials in your compost container. Composting is very environmentally friendly because it removes organic waste from the public waste stream and converts it into a valuable soil amendment.
Compost containers, bins or barrels come in a wide variety of shapes and styles. All compost systems work on the same principle: mix organic materials in an enclosed space with water and air to create compost. It takes about one year for your first batch of compost to be ready.
Sources of compost
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Organic matter for compost comes in two general forms: fresh, green material and brown, woody matter.
Fresh, green material is high in nitrogen and includes kitchen vegetable waste, coffee grounds, fresh weeds (before they go to seed) and herbicide / pesticide-free grass clippings.
Brown, woody matter is high in carbon and is found in fallen leaves, straw (not hay that has seeds), uncoated newspaper, corrugated cardboard, wood chips, sawdust and similar matter. Dried horse, cow, poultry and pig manure are also sources high in nitrogen and can be added to compost. Manure that is not yet dry, but is still 'hot', cannot be added directly to plants, it will damage them.
Compost your weeds, too
All the discarded leafy materials, including weeds (as long as their flowers have not yet produced seeds) from your garden can be added to your compost pile.
Operating your composter
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A composter runs on your continuously feeding your compost pile a portion of the green materials and the woody materials with water, and oxygen. You are trying to create a mix of approximately 30 parts woody materials with 1 part green materials, and adding some water to keep the mix moist (but not saturated) inside your compost container. Nature is forgiving: if your compost contains slightly more or slightly less dry materials, it will work too. Avoid green or woody materials that have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides.
Depending on conditions (air temperature, moisture, materials), it will likely take several months to see the first signs of the black compost at the bottom of your pile and a year before you can harvest it. The wait is worth it.
Keep filling!
You might be surprised how quickly your compost compacts and how often you will need to add more green and woody materials to the top of your compost pile, as the lower layers decompose.
Locating and sizing your composter
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Locate your compost container on a level location on soil, convenient to your garden. Whether you are using a shop-bought plastic bin or a homemade, screen-frame composter, you will need an area about 1x2 metres, for a start. As your compost pile matures the area around it will benefit, the soil becoming richer there, too.
Care and feeding
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A compost pile must be kept moist, but not soggy for efficient decomposition. The plastic bin composter only needs you to feed it from the top and the decomposition process does the rest eventually creating humus at the bottom. Screen-framed composters, on the other hand, need to have their contents turned, usually weekly to even out the decomposition.
During dry weather, you may need to add water weekly. In times of heavy rain, you should cover a screen-frame composter with plastic sheeting. Within a few weeks, the centre of the pile should become hot. If your pile smells bad or like ammonia, it may be too wet, or your materials are packed too tightly. Turn the pile over to let more air in and help it dry out.
Vegetables only, please!
Only add vegetable and fruit waste, coffee grounds and egg shells from your kitchen and garden to your compost – no meat, cheese, butter, bones or fat. These will slow the decomposition and attract rodents and varmints.
Harvesting compost
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It will take a year or longer for your compost to become totally free of leftover particles, which you can screen out. Particles less than a finger width wide are fine for the garden. Compost is ready to use when it has turned black, has a neutral earthy smell and its temperature is slightly above air temperature.
Spread the compost loosely on your garden soil, working it into the soil with a rake, shovel or trowel to the depth of a hand or two. If your compost is coarsely textured, rather than returning it to the composter for further decomposition it can be used instead as mulch on the surface to the depth of not more than two or three finger widths; its rough surfaces allows water to be absorbed. Finely textured compost will crust and repel water from your plant.
For planting in containers, you can mix in compost with the potting soil, but not more than 25% compost. Compost will continue to decompose and the soil in your container may appear to shrink after a year.
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