The art of compost-making has progressed rapidly. In heaps or bins, underground or on top of the soil, today’s composting methods provide the key to building soil fertility for future crops.
Some gardeners are composting the way they did 20 years ago with great success. For others, new techniques and methods have speeded up the process and brought about better results.
When you think about it, it’s really amazing — the way composting has caught hold of the American gardener. You don’t have to buy anything, although there are some very handy compost “gadgets” available to make the work a lot easier. But the fact still remains that today more gardeners then ever before in the United States make compost!
Many old-school organic gardeners are surprised at the change. Now instead of having to explain to visitors what the big pile at the far end of the lot is, they receive advice on how to compost more efficiently. And so the “Lost Art” has become the “Found Art.”
During the early days of organic gardening, the Indore method was about the only systematic way for the home gardener to convert waste materials to humus. With this method, a compost heap is built in layers, using first a 6-inch layer of green matter like weeds, crop wastes or leaves. Next comes a two-inch layer of manure, which is in turn covered by a sprinkling of topsoil. The layers are repeated until the pile reaches a height of about 5 feet, and the heap is watered.
The pile is turned after 6 weeks and again after 12 weeks to allow air to penetrate so that the heap will heat up properly. After 3 months, the compost is finished and ready for application to the soil.
Simple as it now sounds, these instructions revealed to thousands of gardeners a way to prepare homemade fertilizer. And while these people started using the Indore heap method, leaders in the organic gardening field were already making changes in the original plan.
One improvement was that the materials be mixed as they go into the heap. Instead of sandwiching them and keeping the soil, vegetable wastes and animal wastes separated, mix them as one goes on, so to speak. If we start with a 6-inch layer of vegetable wastes, put on a two-inch layer of farmyard manure, and a sprinkling of earth, and then fork up the layers; they get mixed up quite a lot and decomposition is very much better and more complete than if the material is left as separate layers. By doing this, we need only turn the heap once instead of twice.
Spreading the Compost Pile Out
The next major development was sheet composting, which in effect spreads the materials in the compost heap over the entire field, a system especially suited to farms and large-scale gardens. It isn’t really a realistic composting method for backyard composting, but it is still interesting to know about.
First step is to apply raw organic materials directly on the soil, then turn them under with a tiller or tractor right where they are to be used. Since organic matter is most valuable to the soil while it is decaying, on-the-spot sheet composting is very helpful in building soil structure.
Composting in Days
Even though the layering method of heap composting showed that compost could be made in a few months instead of a year or more, many gardeners still looked for a method where decomposition could take place in a matter of days.
The results of their research have led to the 2 Week Method, which has worked so well for thousands of organic gardeners.
The basis of the 2 Week Method is to grind or shred all material going into the compost pile. When the particle size is two inches or less, there’s more surface for bacteria to work on, better aeration and moisture control, and more thorough mixing of various materials.
No layering of material is done, as material is mixed either before or after shredding, then piled in heaps no more than 5 feet high. Every 3 days, the heap is turned — a simple job since the material is light and fluffy. After 10 to 14 days, the heat of the pile has dropped, and the compost is sufficiently decayed to use on the soil.
Many different chipper shredders are available, and rotary lawn mowers also cut up materials efficiently. Weeds, leaves, straw or stable manure can be piled on the ground, and the lawn mower is run back and forth over them. In a few minutes, you can shred two bales of hay, bushels of corn stalks, etc.
If for some reason you can’t shred materials first, you can still shorten composting time by mixing green matter like grass clippings, weeds, etc., with nitrogen-rich materials like manure, cottonseed meal, dried blood, etc. Keep the pile moist and turn it about every 3 or 4 days thoroughly for the first two weeks.
Compost Boxes and Bins
You can actually use just about any compost container you can think of — and then some. This includes “cages” made from chicken wire, woven wire fencing, picket fences, cement blocks, wooden planks, bricks, stones, or whatever else is available. You are limited only by your imagination and the materials you have handy.
Such compost containers make a neat, firm compost pile — especially suited for backyard suburban gardens. You can make one for a few dollars (a ton of compost needs a space only 4 feet square and 4 feet high). By having one side open or an easily-removable side, it’s simple to turn the heap or remove finished compost. Another advantage is that such bins can be insulated (covered with a tarp), so that compost will still “work” during winter.
Unique Approaches to Composting
Special problems call for special techniques — and organic gardeners have been quick to develop them. Here are some examples, each based on -actual experience:
PROBLEM: Making compost in winter.
SOLUTION: Made from old storm windows and 4 blinds once used on his house, a compost bin was placed to slant toward the south to pick up the long, low rays of the winter sun. Hay bales were stacked around the sides to serve as insulation. Glass lid kept animals and snow out, let sun through. Conclusion of Pennsylvania gardener when he found 50-degree difference between inside and outside temperatures on January morning: “I could just feel the billions of happy bacteria, hard at work in the warm interior making black gold to spur the seeds in spring.”
PROBLEM: No room to make compost above ground.
SOLUTION: Make it underground in two pits. In autumn dig the holes two feet deep, 3 feet long and 2y2 feet wide. Place rocks or cement blocks around the outer edges, leaving one side open; a wooden lid resting on the rocks (about 8 inches high) can be used to cover the hole. Built-in pit is now ready for composting everything from kitchen garbage to leaves; after putting garbage into hole, scatter a thin layer of soil or green matter over it. When layers get about 4 inches deep, remove cover and mix pile with a spading fork. Commenting on pit system, gardener says: “I put a layer of leaves or other green matter over the material in the first hole, and just let it lie there until I’m ready to use it. By the following October, when the second pit is filled, the first one is^ empty, and I start the process all over again. Pits always look attractive, and we’ve never had any trouble with burrowing animals. If you need more compost, just increase the size of the two pits.”
PROBLEM: Converting kitchen garbage to fertilizer.
SOLUTION: As the popular saying goes, “let an earthworm be your garbage man.” One way to do this is to use a combination of bin and pit. Fill the hole in layer style (kitchen garbage, manure and green matter) and wet down each layer. After about 3 weeks, when the bottom layers have largely decomposed, introduce about 500 earthworms. According to the plan’s originators, this first batch of 500 will be the “only ones you’ll have to buy; you’ll soon have thousands to use all around the garden. These little composters will work through successive layers which you add to the pit, mixing and breaking down the heap for you.” Continue this layering process until the pit is filled all the way to the top of the box. Then allow it to decompose for 5 or 6 weeks, keeping it moist, and start another box, transferring some of the worms at the bottom of the first pile to the second box. With this system, you can have a new load of compost every sixth week.
What’s the Difference
How different are today’s composting methods from those of 50 years ago? For some gardeners, none at all. They’re perfectly willing to layer their ‘materials in a heap and wait several months for a fertilizer supply that’s enough for their garden. Many others have adopted the variations on sheet composting and speed methods previously described, which vary greatly from the original plan.
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