Fall Home & Garden: Enriching the soil

Composting kitchen scraps and plant material can be rewarding

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Composting can be addictive -- just ask Corinne Ogrodnik. She carried around a bag of fresh kitchen scraps for a week during a beach vacation because there was no compost bin where she was staying. She planned to take the scraps home for her compost pile.

Ms. Ogrodnik is an education specialist program director for the Pennsylvania Resources Council, a nonprofit organization that helps cut down the amount of waste going to landfills. You might think her vacation collection is a little over the top. But after hearing that story, I admitted bringing back giant garbage bags of seaweed from a Maine vacation for my compost bin.

From waste to a resource

So why are so many gardeners crazy for compost? Ms. Ogrodnik, who spends more than 80 percent of her work day dealing with composting, says, "You can't have a healthy garden without healthy soil."

And there's no better way to give your garden what it needs than by adding compost. It's an invaluable soil additive that dispenses with the need for additional fertilizers. Composting is a form of recycling that offers gardeners a cheap alternative to commercial products.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Corinne Ogrodnik of Pennsylvania Resource Council keeps her Earth Machine Compost Bin behind her Greenfield home. People attending composting classes will receive a bin.
Click photo for larger image.

"Not only do we need more healthy soils," she says, "but also to keep [organic matter] out of our landfills. Food waste is not seen as a natural resource, but it is. Whenever we take food from the earth, we take nutrients from the earth. By returning the compost to the soil, we fulfill the cycle of life."

Compost is simply what's left after organic matter decomposes. In the forest, leaf litter composts down into a lifelong nutrient source for trees.

Home composting is easy, and gardeners treasure what they make, only using it for their most important plantings.

The most popular things to compost come from the kitchen. Anything that will rot is usable. In my house, that means coffee grounds (and filters), eggshells, fruit and vegetable refuse (peelings and pits, too), and paper towels. Just about anything that comes through the kitchen will make its way out to the compost pile.

The average household produces hundreds of pounds of kitchen waste every year, and you can successfully compost most of it. The only things not to pull aside for a trip to the compost pile are meat or dairy products. They can start to ferment, then smell, which attracts rodents.

I know people who compost everything. When they add it to the pile, they lay a cover material on top. Straw or sawdust are the most popular covers.

Anything organic will eventually become compost. Ms. Ogrodnik offers a couple of other suggestions, such as dryer lint, vacuum cleaner refuse, paper napkins and shredded newspapers (not shiny inserts). Compost is the result of many different organisms big and small feeding on the fresh material.

"It's the bacteria, potato bugs, earthworms, fungus, spiders, ants and beetles moving through the pile of materials. All of the microbes, insects and organisms actually ingest these things, digest them and what comes out the other end is compost," she says.

Everything composts at its own rate. A wild mushroom will decompose in a few weeks, but a fallen tree in the forest will take decades until it's returned to the earth. At the end of the gardening season, everything left in the garden can be put into the compost pile as long as it's not diseased. Depending on the setup and how often it's turned, it might take a few weeks or a few years in the backyard pile to become that rich, brown, odor-free soil amendment that makes plants thrive.

The compost pile can take many forms. Some gardeners use commercially available bins; others construct their own. There are people who compost directly in the garden during the off season, and some who just pile their scraps in the corner of the property and wait for them to rot.

The traditional compost setup is three bins at least 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet. In the first is the fresh refuse from the kitchen; gardeners keep adding to it until it's full. In bin No. 2, we start building again. By the time the third bin is being filled, the first is ready to use.

That's how it works in my garden -- the lazy man's method. But you can speed up the process. When a compost pile is turned, it's oxygenated and composting quickens. There are a variety of tumblers available that will keep things moving. Some are rolled along the ground, and others sit on a frame and are turned with a hand crank. When conditions are right, they can make compost in weeks instead of years.

You can achieve similar results by taking a garden fork to the pile occasionally. It depends on how fast you want the compost and how strong your back is. Shredding or chopping the material first will also speed up the process.

What to avoid

I'm often asked about using wood ash in the garden, and I always tell folks to compost it first because it's very alkaline and can change the pH for the worse. Even in the compost pile, I wouldn't use a lot of wood ash -- maybe one in 10 trips to the pile should involve wood ash. Never compost coal or charcoal ash because they can contain things that inhibit plant growth.

Ms. Ogrodnik advises to never use pet droppings either, as they could contain diseases. However, other animal manures, such as cow, horse or rabbit are great additions. Even weeds can be added, although I'm wary of doing it. I have a separate pile for the weeds.

If you do compost weeds in the main pile, try to get them before they go to seed or you might be composting your way to a real headache. Technically, if the pile is the right size and has the right ingredients, temperatures reach 160 degrees -- hot enough to kill most weed seeds and pathogens.

Perfect compost is built from a combination of a lot of carbon materials, usually dry brown ingredients such as fallen leaves and a little nitrogen-rich material such as kitchen scraps or lawn clippings. The perfect mix is 30 parts brown material to 1 part green. One caution about adding mowed grass: Make sure it's not been treated with herbicides or other chemicals because you don't need that in your compost bin.

It might seem complicated to try to get the formula right, but Ms. Ogrodnik has a simple way to balance a compost pile. Every time she adds kitchen scraps, she throws some leaves on top. City gardeners without access to leaves could use shredded newspaper. The rule of thumb is to add the same amount by volume of both types of materials. The brown stuff is so airy and the green stuff so dense that it all works out in the end.

If your pile has too much green stuff, it will start to smell a little funky. Get at it with a garden fork, add a little brown material, and it will take care of itself.

You don't have to fret about the proper brown/green mixture as long as you have some brown and green in there and then add a little moisture. Heat and oxygen will do the trick. Everything rots eventually.

Once the compost pile is built, leave a slight depression on top to help trap water. If you're using a commercial covered bin, add a little water with each load of fresh material.

Composting offers many things for gardeners. Once you see how plants respond to the nutritious treat of compost, you'll try to figure out how to make more. Ms. Ogrodnik speaks for most compost junkies when she says, "You can never get enough compost, that's for sure."

Composting classes

The presentation on backyard composting thoroughly covers everything from setting up a compost pile to proper maintenance to ways of using finished compost. The cost of the class is $25 per person or $35 per couple. The fee will be used to extend the program so that classes and bin distributions can be offered throughout the year. Participants will receive an Earth Machine Compost Bin free of charge for attending. This bin, approved across the state as an ideal bin for urban and suburban areas, has an 80-gallon capacity and usually retails for more than $60. One compost bin per household. (For information on the Earth Machine, go to www.composters.com.)

Whole Foods Market, East Liberty -- Today from 6 to 8 p.m.

Urban Gardener, North Side -- Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Green Tree Municipal Center -- Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m.

Marshall Township Building -- next Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m.

East End Food Co-op, Point Breeze -- Oct. 2 from 6 to 8 p.m.

If you are interested in attending one of the workshops, contact Corinne Ogrodnik at 412-431-4449, ext. 325, or corinneo@ccicenter.org.

For more information about Pennsylvania Resources Council, log onto www.prc.org.

Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1484.


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