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The Fourth Law of Ecology is “Everything must go somewhere.”
We usually don’t give much thought to where that somewhere is as we get rid of things and that somewhere is often a place that’s not the best destination. This is especially true for our household and backyard organic materials such at kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, leaves and weeds from the garden. Much of this material goes into the trash and then to the landfill which fills up faster than it ought to. Some, I’ve seen, goes on or over the riverbank only to be washed downstream with the next flooding event.
One way to deal with our household organic materials (meaning things that will decay) is to compost them and keep them on the land to nourish the land. Composting is easy and is a natural process – organic materials slowly decay. The simplest way to compost is to throw your organic material on a pile and let it rot. But since this is a slow process the pile may get quite large, unsightly and maybe odorous.
This is where the composting process comes in. With a little effort and know how we can hasten the decay process and have rich compost for the garden, lawn or fruit trees in a matter of weeks. Here’s how to get started.
Find an out-of-the-way spot that is relatively flat. Imagine two five-foot diameter circles side by side. (Note: A three-sided bin is not necessary.) These will be the spots where you build the first pile and the spot onto which you build the second pile (using the first pile as material for the second) after the first has run its course of temperature rise and fall (about two to three weeks).
1. The bottom layer of the pile should be rough, rather dry material such as big stalked weeds or thin woody brush. This layer should be about three of four inches thick and have a lot of air holes so air can enter the bottom of the pile to provide the necessary oxygen for the microorganisms in the pile.
2. With this base, add a layer of dry (brown) material such as hay, straw or leaves about three inches thick. This is the carbon layer.
3. Next add a layer of green material such as fresh-cut grass clippings, freshly pulled or cut garden weeds and the vegetable compost from the kitchen. This green layer, the nitrogen layer, should be about three inches thick also.
4. The last layer of this sequence is soil that provides a good population of microorganisms. Sprinkle a few shovels of soil over the entire pile so that soil is in contact with the material underneath, probably less than an inch thick.
5. At this point, if the material added is dry, some water should be sprinkled over the pile. But not too much. The pile should be moist but not soggy.
6. Now the pile will be about a foot high and the layering sequence outlined in Steps 2 through 5 are repeated – layer of brown stuff, layer of green stuff, layer of soil, water if needed. That’s all there is to it.
7. Continue this layering sequence until the pile is at least four feet high. A compost pile needs to be big enough (at least a cube three feet on each side, preferably four feet on each side) to retain enough heat to provide a favorable environment for the microorganisms to multiply and break down the compost material. If properly built, a compost pile will heat up to as much as 150 degrees F in several days or more. By two weeks the temperature may have fallen back down to a 100 degrees F or less.
8. At this point, the pile should be rebuilt using the layering sequence outlined above, except that the soil may be omitted and the old compost pile is used as the brown material. Fresh green stuff and garden/kitchen materials are used for the green layer. (Note: As you rebuild the pile, put outer layers of the old pile into the central portion of the new pile. This helps to degrade the material (plus weed seeds and pathogenic organisms if any) that was not subjected to the high temperatures and vigorous bacterial action.
9. This pile is left to “cook” for two or three weeks at which time it can be used as compost in your garden. Some sorting or screening out of material that was not completely broken down may be necessary. However, this rougher material will continue to decay in the garden in areas where rougher material will not hinder the gardening being done. Or you may choose to rebuild the compost pile again. (Note: Use a coarse screen such as three-quarters or one-inch hardware cloth or just a six-tined fork to separate out any larger and unfinished material.)
These simple steps will get you started and I hope motivate you to learn more. There are many resources that can aid you in becoming a skillful composter. Try this website for more information: www.compostingvermont.org. Or visit www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/airwaste/wm/recycle/facts/compost.htm.
Richard Czaplinski lives in Warren.